Breaking Down Silos: Setting an Example of Collaboration as the First Step

May 10, 2010 / General /

By Ryan W. Quinn

A colleague of mine once told me about an experience he had while consulting for one of the world’s largest companies. This company had suddenly experienced a rapid and significant drop in profitability. To respond to this crisis they brought my colleague and the top four or five layers of leadership in their company to an emergency planning meeting to develop strategies for turning the company around.

Collaborating to Turn the Company Around

At the meeting, the leaders went through all of the data regarding the situation that their company was facing. The CEO explained to everyone how important it would be for everyone in the company to work together to turn the company around, and how they needed everyone to contribute. Then they broke up into groups to make plans regarding how to turn each section of the company around. After a day or so of planning the groups re-convened to present their plans to the CEO and to the other teams. The leaders of the teams–many of which were the CEO’s direct reports–made these presentations.

My colleague told the CEO that it was his job to grill each presenter thoroughly and completely to make sure that the plans were sound and could actually turn the company around. During the first few presentations, the CEO did exactly that: he asked tough questions and drilled down to the central issues. Then, a particularly intimidating member of the top management team stood to present. When he completed his presentation, the CEO asked him some “cupcake” questions, to my colleague’s exquisite disappointment.

A few days later, my colleague expressed his disappointment to me. He explained that the when the CEO failed to grill all of his direct reports equally, it sent a clear message to all of the other leaders in the room–whether the CEO intended it or not–that the request for everyone to contribute to the turnaround of the company did not apply to everyone. Some people would not be held quite as accountable, or be asked to sacrifice quite as much. As a result, many people would continue working with others in the organization in the same way they had before: without collaboration. The silos would not come down. Collaboration in the different units of the company would reflect the collaboration of the top management team.


Abraham Carmeli, a professor of Strategy and Management at Bar-Ilan University’s Graduate School of Business Administration recently conducted a study [1] on this phenomenon. He found a correlation between top management team collaboration, the quality of their decision-making, and organizational decline.

As we discussed in our previous post on collaboration, it is important to remember that collaboration is not the same as cooperation. Collaboration requires assertiveness as well as cooperation–an insistence that my interests and yours are both met, and that there is not a compromise for either of us in terms of interests.

In top management teams, collaborative approaches lead to better decision making because executives get all of their information on the table, surface conflicting issues, and discuss these issues until they come up with innovative solutions that meet the needs of multiple constituents, and prevent organizational decline.

The collaboration of a top management team can prevent organizational decline for many other reasons as well. For example, as the story above illustrates, people watch and learn from the examples of their leaders. At the first sign of a lack of assertiveness and collaboration, the employees immediately, if unconsciously, labeled their leaders as insincere in their commitment to work through the crisis in a truly collaborative way, which then undermined decisions and implementation throughout the entire organization.

Collaboration is important all over an organization, but the collaboration of a top management team is where collaboration begins–and sometimes ends–for the whole organization in many of the cases we observe.

What To Do?

What can you do if you work on a team that is not collaborative? There are many answers to this question, and some of them will depend on the specific situations that each team encounters. Here are a few suggestions and resources that can help you address this issue:

  1. Look for examples of successful collaboration. The first tendency many people have when there is a problem of lacking collaboration is to focus on the problem and to try to fix it. Sometimes this can exacerbate the problem. It is often more productive to begin where there is success. Are some of the relationships on the team collaborative? If so, why? Do some circumstances bring our greater collaboration from the team? If so, what is it about those circumstances that led to collaboration? Can they be re-created? In some relationships on the team that seem to be perpetually negative, are there any exceptions, where the two people have worked collaboratively before? If so, what made it possible for them to be collaborative at those times? Look to the success, learn from it, and build on it in the current conflicts.
  2. Label conflict as natural. Many of us see conflict as bad, an example of our failure to get along, or as an example of personality defects. This is unfortunate, because conflict is simply a form of difference. Difference is who we are. Organizations create difference simply by having a division of labor, so conflict is naturally and inherently embedded in the system. Conflict, then, should be labeled as an opportunity to collaborate–to learn, to innovate, to grow. Simply changing the label, and getting others to change the label, can change our whole approach to dealing with conflict.
  3. Use the four Lift questions. A great way to deal with a lack of collaboration on a team is to identify a specific situation in which conflict will be present, and then to write out answers to the four Lift questions before engaging that situation. The purpose that the first question helps you come up with will help you to understand what your own interests in the situation are, so that you do not get stuck in your own positions. A story about living up to your values (second question) will help you manage the conflict in a principled way. Taking time to consider how others feel (third question) will help you to uncover possible underlying interests that others in the situation may have. And coming up with multiple ways to approach the situation (question four) will make you more flexible and help you to treat the conflict as a learning conversation.
  4. Talk to disinterested friends. If you can get the perspectives of people who are not a part of the situation, but who will be honest with you about the part that you might be playing in the situation yourself, it can help enormously in dealing with the situation.
  5. Additional resources. For more detailed discussions about how to create collaboration out of conflict, there are many useful resources. Two that I like (out of many) include the book Difficult Conversations [2] and the article “Rethinking Political Correctness” [3] (see also this previous post).


The company that my colleague worked with plodded along for a time. They eventually merged with another company, creating a whole new set of collaboration problems. The leaders are well-intentioned though, and want to learn from their mistakes. As long as there is learning, then the possibility for collaboration remains.



[1] Carmeli, Abraham and John Schaubroeck (2006). Top management team behavioral integration, decision quality, and organizational decline. The Leadership Quarterly, 17(5): 441-453.

[2] Stone, Douglas, Bruce Patton & Sheila Heen (2000). Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. Penguin.

[3] Ely, R., Meyerson, D., & Davidson, M. N. (2006). “Rethinking political correctness.” Harvard Business Review, 84, 79-87.