The Negotiator Magazine

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Cross-Silo Negotiation

Steven P. Cohen

Several years ago a participant in one of my company’s negotiation skills training programs described a recent traumatic experience. He had received a call giving him five minutes warning to join a conference call between several colleagues from within his company and some representatives of a major client. When he joined the call, he was horrified to listen to more than thirty minutes of bickering among his colleagues – while the client representatives were listening. The lack of cohesion within his company displayed in the client’s hearing undercut his group’s credibility. There should have been some kind of preparation across corporate silos that could have prevented this fiasco.

Except for people who work for especially small companies, there are high odds the organization includes people who do a variety of jobs and have a variety of mindsets. It is those very differences that make things work. Just as the old song talks about the ‘head-bone connected to the neck-bone. . .’, companies need folks with a variety of skills to get the work done.

To a certain extent, every company has it’s own overall corporate culture. Nonetheless, the folks who purchase raw materials are likely to think differently from the people who run the manufacturing process in which those raw materials are consumed. When one adds in designers, sales people, members of the accounting team, human resources professionals – and all the rest, a great many companies suffer from the existence of a ‘silo’ mentality in which members of different tribes within the organization find it difficult to work together collaboratively.

During some recent work with a very large corporation, I asked one of the participants in the program to indicate the company’s internal stakeholders with significant interests in how he – and his immediate colleagues – performed their job. In about five minutes, the list filled nearly an entire whiteboard. If there are that many constituents who will be impacted by one person’s or department’s actions, it is not hard to comprehend how there could be obstacles to a smooth internal decision-making process. Even when the list of potential stakeholders who might be impacted by one’s decision is relatively small, it is crucial to focus on how to bring about buy-in from one’s colleagues to make sure internal decision-making is a collaborative process – and external negotiations offer outsiders a clear sense of what they can expect.

Before any external negotiation takes place, responsible individuals must take steps to get their corporate act together. Moreover, just to gain agreement and produce dependable commitment on internal issues, people at almost any level need to do the relevant homework to figure out how to gain buy-in from colleagues. Without that buy-in even on such seemingly simple matters as dress codes and what kind of language is acceptable, as well as more serious issues such as who can drive decision-making and how that process should go forward on both internal and external matters, the organization’s progress can be stymied.

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October 2004