Empathy: The Solution to the Self-Defeatism of Silos

Photo by Kelly Sikkhema on  Unsplash

Photo by Kelly Sikkhema on Unsplash

If you’ve ever worked in organizations where people were working in silos, you know how counterproductive it can be. In organizations like this, rather than working together to create synergy, team members work against each other with the aim of optimizing their own interest, at the cost of significantly sub-optimizing the interests of the organization as a whole. And since even those working toward their own ends are part of that whole, by pursuing their own interests they are also paradoxically working against them at the same time.

The leading cause of silos being formed is that team members feel that nobody has their back and they feel compelled to seek refuge in the company of those they find to be most like them. In this sense, silos, or any other kind of insular group, is really just the result of our natural human tendency to seek out community, especially when we feel that we have been abandoned by the larger group. Before you know it, people in these silos lose all sense of what is right or wrong with respect to the organization, and they become entrenched in what they consider to be in the best interest of the group of people they identify with.

Again, this is done in ignorance of the fact that every silo is still part of the larger organization, and preferentially favoring the former over the latter is the equivalent of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Eventually, having multiple silos all compete against each other, while the organization languishes as a result, becomes a self-limiting and self-defeating situation. As Lincoln famously put it, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Of course, not everyone understands the truth of this situation, usually because they can’t see the forest for the trees, or because they are ignorant of the laws of interdependence that govern all cultures, society, and reality itself. Sometimes, it is simply because, as humans, we often fail to practice foresight to see what future effects our current behaviors will lead to down the road, and as such, we prioritize our present enjoyment over our future well-being, even in cases when the trade-off should be obvious.

Then, there are also those who cravenly exploit this no-win situation for their own benefit, and then pack up and move on once it has reached its inevitable goal of ruin for everyone involved. In fact, I knew one so-called leader who would actually leverage this dynamic to his personal advantage. He would intentionally pit people against each other and while they were at odds, he would control and manipulate them. He was, of course, not a leader at all, but people didn’t realize it because they were too busy fighting amongst each other while he threw gas on their fire to keep himself warm. It eventually became clear to the entire organization that this person was more of a “cult leader” than anything else, but by that time much damage had been done and they had presumably moved on to their next victim.

What becomes prevalent in divided organizations is the extreme levels of hypocrisy and double standards. People pointing to the speck in “the other people’s” eyes while they have a plank sticking out of their own. But it is not always an evil-intentioned leader with a divide-and-conquer strategy who instigates this problem. Left to our own devices, and in the absence of intentionally breaking down barriers, we tend to migrate to such a state anyway. Good organizational design and a healthy collaborative culture are supposed to help counteract this natural tendency to break into silos, by uniting the organization around a common vision that benefits everyone, but we all know that that isn’t always present. So, when it starts, at first, it seems like no big deal. As our allegiance to our silos builds up slowly, just like a frog slowly being boiled, we don’t realize just how disconnected we’re becoming from each other, the organization, and reality until it’s too late. Eventually we develop one set of standards for everyone in our silo, and another set of standards for everyone outside of it, with no thought to consistency or integrity.

I once worked in an organization where I had the responsibility to deliver the annual wage and benefit changes to employees who were on two different systems, depending on whether they were salaried or hourly employees. Traditionally, the hourly employees were more outspoken about their disapproval of the amount of increase, while the salaried employees would get together and talk about the hourly employees and how ridiculous it was that they complained so much, and so on. They would get on their high horses and criticize to their heart’s content. Then, one year, the changes made to the salaried people’s benefits turned out to be less than ideal. You should have seen the reactions of the same people who routinely ridiculed others for their supposedly “childish” behavior. It was ten times worse! And yet, as this was pointed out to them, they had all kinds of reasons why their situation was different, and their behavior was justified, which just made them look even pettier and hypocritical by comparison. And all that could have been avoided if they had just practiced empathy from the beginning!

The simple cure to divisiveness and hypocrisy is indeed just a little empathy. If we could just look at the world through someone else’s eyes before we echo others in our silo and join in on the chorus of criticism, we would eliminate so much pain and suffering and improve the results and morale of the organization by leaps and bounds. Putting ourselves in others’ shoes would also counteract the tendency to even form competing silos in the first place. Because, by guarding against our natural tendency to fall into the naïve solipsism of a child, which assumes that only our experience is real and only our interests matter and that everything is “mine,” we naturally become more receptive to win-win solutions that benefit us, others, and the entire organization, and lay the groundwork for a virtuous cycle of continuously improved results and satisfaction. This solution is simple, but by no means is it easy! But the hard truth is that either we must choose to practice empathy on our own terms or eventually, when everything comes crashing down and we have nothing except the people around us, we will be forced to do so to survive.

Sometimes empathy is thrust upon us when we least expect it, but when we most need it. I witnessed this years ago when my wife and I lived in a city that was still pretty much segregated along racial lines, in the late 1980’s. As dismaying as it is that this happened only 30 years ago, at the time, as an inter-racial couple, we were limited in where we could live because of the bigotry entrenched in the culture of this society. Despite the fact that we were simply trying to live our lives the same as everyone else, we weren’t afforded that basic decency that empathy would have revealed as everyone’s fundamental right. Some people would have preferred that she stay on her side of the tracks, and, I’m sure, that I “go back to where I came from.” (Obviously we didn’t acquiesce before these racist “unwritten rules,” but that’s another story for another day.)

Things had been like this as far as I can remember, probably as far back as anyone can remember, until one day, there was a flood that affected 70% of the homes. And for a season, while the city was recovering from the devastation, the most beautiful thing happened. People set aside their feelings of superiority and animosity and bigotry, and they came together as one community and worked shoulder-to-shoulder to restore the homes and neighborhoods. They had been forced to empathize with one another as human beings, rather than demonizing and dehumanizing one another, because failing to do so was the difference between surviving or perishing. The key here is not that they gained some brand new ability when catastrophe struck, but that they were forced to practice their ability to empathize, an ability that they all had all along, because the world made them see that, in the grand scheme of things, it’s either united we stand or divided we fall.

Do we have to wait for a natural disaster to force us to see the good in each other? Does the world need to be invaded by aliens for us to set aside our bickering and recognize that we’re in this together? Do we have to put up with a dictator for a boss and suffer the divisive nature of how dictators operate, to recognize that coming together and collaborating creates a better workplace for all of us? Worse yet, do we have to create such a dire situation in our organizations or our communities that practicing empathy and civility and basic human decency is literally the only thing preventing us from going under? I should hope not! And I know that most of us, even those in silos, don’t want it to come to that. But, as I’ve mentioned before, the world doesn’t respond to how we feel or what we want, only to what we do. And the world is a strict taskmaster; if we fail to learn its lessons the first time, they just keep getting harder until we do!

Whether you are a leader in your organization or not, you can and must take steps to unite people. You can facilitate dialogue between silos, rather just finding one and crawling into it. You can stop shouting out the same thing that the people in your silo are chanting and begin to examine whose thoughts you are actually thinking and who it benefits for you to do so. You can begin to try imagining the world through the eyes of others and use foresight to work towards what is in the greater interest of the whole organization or community. You can take steps to equalize the power between the “haves” and “have nots,” rather than trying to make sure you don’t end up being one of the “have nots.” You can reject your boss’ ways of dividing and conquering people and take a chance on speaking up for what’s right. If nothing else, you refrain from judging someone else’s actions if you’ve never been in their shoes. Above all keep in mind that “this is the character of perfection: that the more a unity consists of diverse elements, the more that unity is perfect.”

There is no honor in perpetuating the status quo for your own benefit at the expense of the greater good. And there is no ultimate benefit of doing so either, because whatever short-term or narrow gains you make in the present come at the expense of the long-term wellbeing of that society or organization in which you “live and move and have your being.” There is no better time to develop and practice empathy than the present, while we have the choice and opportunity; if we don’t do it now, we risk having neither in the future.

Thanks for reading this post all the way through, I hope it made a difference for you! I just want to let all my followers and readers know that some big changes are coming to the blog and the website this summer. My team and I are very excited about what we have planned, and we know our community of readers and followers will be too! I can’t wait to share the news with you, so make sure you keep up with me on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.

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As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!

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