What is Alignment and Why Does it Matter?

Have you ever been in a meeting and thought everyone agreed on a decision that was presented, only to find out later that people were not acting on the decision, were actively sabotaging the decision, or confused that a decision had even been made?

I help leaders deal with these mischief-makers all the time. Usually, the situation comes about when there’s a lack of alignment.

 

What is alignment?

Alignment is when everyone can get behind the decision, even if they have reservations; they agree that it’s the best course of action at present and good enough to get the game in play.

Alignment is different than consensus. This is a “good enough for now” approach to forward action. People leave the meeting committed to the decision and effectively cascade that information and stand behind the decision.

And when there’s a lack of alignment, it’s usually because:

  • The team leader doesn’t know how to get alignment.
  • There’s not enough trust on the team to have an open discussion about the decision.
  • People are unclear about their role in the decision-making.
  • The team leader doesn’t surface and allow for concerns, opinions, recommendations, etc.
  • People feel railroaded.
  • People think “I’ll just go do what I want anyway … there are no consequences.”
  • People feel straddled between their allegiance to their own organization and the leadership team. They believe they have to choose and most often err on the side of their own organization.
  • A few years ago, I dealt with a situation where Jessica, a newly promoted head of an organization, was unaware that one of her section heads was not behind a decision that had been made. The consequences were ultimately destructive for the entire organization. Here’s the context and how that situation unfolded: 

Jessica was promoted to the executive director position of a medical group. Initially, Jessica was unable to get alignment for her decisions, particularly with Jim. He was the director of one of her leadership teams and tended to have an autocratic style.

Everyone knew Jim had wanted the executive director job, but Jessica got it instead. Jim saw the job of executive director as his last chance before retirement to run the organization and when Jessica got the position, he proceeded with a chip on his shoulder and attempted to discredit Jessica at every turn.

In his own meetings, Jim didn’t allow much time for discussion, if any, and was a powerhouse in his own right. Jim was on Jessica’s executive leadership team, had strong opinions and was often at loggerheads with Jessica.

Unfortunately, that cascaded down to his medical team. He would tell them what the executive team decided and that they had to implement it, but let his team know he disagreed with the decision. Not only that, he bad-mouthed the executive team and specifically Jessica. As these things go, word of that got back to Jessica and the executive team.

You can imagine the net effect of that on the executive team, his team, and the teams they managed. The impact looked like this:

  • People on the executive team didn’t respect or trust Jim. He lost credibility.
  • Jim appeared as a victim and disempowered to his medical team. The “they’re making me / us do it” mentality.
  • Jim’s team became blockers instead of enablers to forwarding implementation of programs for the larger organization.
  • Jim’s team (and the cascade of employees) were getting mixed messages from the organization’s leadership and from Jim and were confused.
  • Morale dropped. People did not feel and believe they could contribute and make a difference; they did not feel they were moving together toward common goals.
  • Jim didn’t set up his team for success, and the individuals on his team were seen as complicit.
  • Skepticism in the larger organization increased, along with this smaller team’s resistance to change.

These were the consequences for Jim, his team, and the company. Jessica, however, in her role as leader, could have headed off the damages when she took her new role, by implementing a few leadership techniques.

Upon reflection, Jessica asked herself whether she had rushed things in order to achieve her goals, rather than take time upfront to build a strong team foundation.

Did she explicitly discuss her decision-making model or process … how the decisions were going to be made. (Core issue: Team operating principles.)

Did she work to build team trust? When people are afraid to speak up and give their opinion. (Core issue: Team trust.)

Did she create a problem-solving environment that allowed for productive conflict where differing opinions are surfaced, expressed, and discussed and a diversity of ideas are encouraged? (Core issues: Trust, facilitation, team operating principles, meeting agenda.)

Did she allot enough time for a meaningful discussion about decision? (Core issues: Facilitation, agenda.)

Did she or other people on the team railroad others into a decision?(Core issue: Team operating principles, effective communication, facilitation, trust.)

Did she make sure people were aligned and committed to the decision before they left the meeting? (Core issues: Use of alignment process, facilitation.)

Getting the alignment required to function well as an organization takes rigor, effective facilitation, and time upfront. The price paid up front is far, far cheaper than the downstream costs and unintended consequences of a leadership team that is not aligned behind decisions.