Beware of Silos and Fiefdoms

It’s a natural tendency for humans to form them – avoid them at all costs.


General Motors’ ignition switch problems that apparently led to several reported deaths have received a lot of publicity of late. The problems were reported to low levels of management as early as 2001, but the news was never acted upon.

The new CEO at GM summarised the problem as being one of a ‘silo’ culture in which managers in different departments failed to communicate safety concerns to one another or to senior executives. Hence, the problem festered for over a decade.

Sources of the formation of silos and fiefdoms

Silos and fiefdoms are a topic that I have studied intently over the years and it led to my book titled The Fiefdom Syndrome. In it I outlined three human tendencies that are typically the source of the formation of silos and fiefdoms.

1. The Urge to Control Data

There is a natural tendency for people to want to have total control over any information that might reflect on their performance. This way when a question gets asked, they can present the data in such a way to put their best foot forward.

2. The Desire for Independence

Most organisations want to be left alone and be totally independent from the rest of the larger organisation within which they reside.

3. Inflated Sense of Self-Worth

Over time, individuals tend to believe that whatever they are doing, and no matter what the results are, things are going fine. Any data that conflicts with that notion is rejected or ignored.

What to do about it

Realising these tendencies, there are a couple of important steps that can be taken to avoid the kinds of silo and fiefdom problems that many organisations experience:

1. Reorganise

When the same organisational structure is left in place too long, it causes modes of operation to become institutionalised. Occasionally reorganising to achieve fresh goals can shake the organisation out of its complacency.

2. Replace/Move People Regularly 

When a person is in the same job for a long time, typically the innovation stops and the individual becomes protective of the status quo. Getting fresh talent in key jobs is a great way to uncover opportunities to improve.

3. Checks and Balances

For activities that cut across many organisations in a company, such as information systems, safety standards, quality standards, etc, you need a central group that has the authority to reach into any organisation involved in these activities and raise issues with the top management. That is what GM’s new CEO is now putting in place regarding vehicle safety.