One of the the biggest complaints I hear from leaders about their teams goes like this:

They’re all good individuals, but they just refuse to think at the organizational level.  They sit in their silos and own little responsibility for the success of the whole enterprise (or business unit or function or department).

I’m curious by nature, so I’ll often ask a question like, “What tells you that?” Often, there’s a long pause.

“It’s a gut feeling I have,” they respond.  And I can tell from their expression that this “gut feeling” is a very lonely feeling.  These senior leaders are the only ones carrying the bag at the end of the day for the whole – and that’s not only lonely, it’s often dangerous.

Sometimes, I’m lucky enough to get to observe their teams and it doesn’t take long to see the symptoms of silos.  One of the most obvious signs is language.  No, I don’t mean whether or not they curse each other out – although that can be a sign that something isn’t exactly right.  I simply observe which pronouns the members of the leadership team use when talking about the organization.

Here’s an example: Not too long ago, I was facilitating a strategic alignment session for a leadership team made up of functional leaders and general managers of business units.  As usual, my process asked them to think at the enterprise level.  On a regular basis, as the leaders talked about the current and future direction of the business, they would say things like:

  • “Well, you people at (XYZ Corp.) do things this way.  We (in our business unit) do it differently.”
  • “Our results have been pretty good over the past two quarters.”

I found myself repeatedly asking, “When you say ‘we,’ exactly who is ‘we’?”  Over the course of our multi-day working session, we all got more sensitive to this thing of seeing the whole and managing the whole that I talked about in a prior post.

So if you want to test your own organization for silos, listen for a while to leaders as they talk.  What do their pronouns tell you about where they consider “home” to be and what they truly own?  It’s a simple signal that can reveal a lot.

What other signals tell you how prevalent silos are in your organization?