How We’re Taught To Think In Silos


The other day, after all these years, I once more found myself sitting on some school benches. I was second in a row of four guest lecturers who had been invited to speak to the students and was enjoying the nice opportunity to hear what my colleagues were up to.

As the day unfolded, two things started to occur to me, and they stuck in my head as the lectures continued.

First, I started to remember how uncomfortable those old wooden chairs were from my schooldays. With no leg room whatsoever, I found myself constantly turning to relieve my now ‘wooden’ backside.

Second, and in a related vein, one of my fellow presenters made a remark that had me thinking. They said: “We are taught to work as silos”.

It means that we don’t just learn subjects at school, but we learn other things about communication.

What Does It Mean?

Do you remember sitting in lectures, listening (most of the time) to your professor? It’s where I found myself again that day. Of course, this time it was much more interesting, but there was one thing that was the same – the professor was sending information while we listened passively.

As we had back then, we the audience were now experiencing a Convince style of communication as our speaker explained concepts, emphasized facts, and highlighted details.

In university – and it still happens today – we had no choice but to take it all in to pass our exams. We as students didn’t give much input at all as one concept or truth was explained. We just sat quietly and took notes. Occasionally, some students would ask for clarification, and even less frequently, some bold souls might start a discussion if they had a different opinion.

But while some were more interactive than others, all these behaviors were still focused on the content at hand – facts, figures, and theory.

The Silo Mentality At Work

And so I realized, does it really stop when we finish our education? I’m not so sure it does!

I believe we bring this mentality into the workplace as we move on from school. When you attend a meeting at your first job, your second, third, or even your eighth, how likely are you to pitch your ideas without being prompted?

The answer, I bet, is not likely – and this is what can cause problems in the workplace. As we continue doing what we were taught, we end up thinking in silos.

Heads Down, Focus

Silo mentalities are one of the three top issues that we help to resolve with the Sphere of Influence 360.  They are a silent killer, and we’ve seen countless teams where everyone has their head down, focused on their own thing. It doesn’t mean they’re unhappy with each other or in some conflict, but these hard-to-detect mentalities can be just as destructive for productivity.

Imagine a team of 5 amazing programmers, each absorbed in their own piece of code. Independently, they’re getting so much done – designing, learning, bug-fixing, everything at a rapid pace. But when it’s time to put it all together, we find out a few things:

  • Alice has mistakenly been producing the same piece of code as Perry;
  • Tess has been working on the other half of what Alice was meant to do; and
  • While everyone else has been working in Python, Henri alone has been coding in Java.

When they realize, they’re all understandably upset at one another. Because while everyone has been neglecting relationships for content, we’ve ended up with inefficiencies, bottlenecks, duplicated work, and frustrations.

What Can We Do About It?

Practically, there are two main things that we can do to fix silo mentalities: connect on a personal level, and interact more.  If our five programmers had focused on their content a little less and spent some time talking to one another, they might have saved themselves a lot of time and stress.

Rather than creating an identical copy of Perry’s work, Alice would have known to work with Tess on a tangible outcome. Henri might have coded in Python, and you get the picture…

And we should be starting to do these things at schools and universities because these institutions could help students place more emphasis on relationship-focused behaviors rather than content at an early age.

By taking some focus off the content, educators could try encouraging more relationship-oriented behaviors that enhance collaboration.

It’s Not ALL Lectures, Though…

No, university isn’t all lectures. I’m not saying that there isn’t already some interaction when students work together on projects.

But I’d argue that even in these instances, the focus is still on content. What about, instead of being graded on their content, students were graded on their ability to work together? On their abilityto listen, empathize, or check that others understand? And what if we reinforced behaviors like taking the lead when it’s necessary, stepping back when it isn’t, or ensuring equal involvement?

I think it would be a really effective way to create more relationship-focused teams later on, in the workplace.

Over to You

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I’m always grateful to be able to help teams reconnect with each other once more – especially on a personal level. All I’m saying is that I wouldn’t mind if we started to think about teaching those super-important teamworking skills before our students head out to their first jobs. What do you think?

Nicolien Dellensen

Nicolien Dellensen, Senior Consultant and behavioral specialist and creator and owner of the ’Sphere of Influence 360º’ a comprehensive concept and (360) online tool about interactive dynamics.

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