The Illusion of Alignment

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As I work with teams in dozens of companies, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern over the years. When I start to work with the team and we go through introductions and the preliminaries, everything looks peachy and wonderful. As we get into the work at hand and I (innocently) start to ask questions, a certain level of discomfort starts to emerge in the team. And as the answers I get back become less precise, more avoiding and fluffy, I start to drill deeper as it’s obvious that there’s something fishy.

As I keep pushing and probing, someone, at some point, gives an answer that obviously is from the heart and that directly represents this person’s opinion. The problem is that this viewpoint clearly isn’t shared by the rest of the team and, depending on the level of extrovertness of the other members, dissent starts to show. This is where the whole house of cards comes tumbling down and it’s obvious that there’s a huge elephant in the room that nobody talks about (and for which I am obviously brought in).

The interesting thing is not that different people have different opinions. We all have different opinions and life would be pretty boring if we didn’t. The surprising thing, to me, is that teams work so hard at establishing an illusion of alignment. Even though everyone knows that others have different, sometimes diametrically opposing, views, the team works incredibly hard at finding formulations, abstractions and wordings that obfuscate the obvious disagreement and that create an illusionary alignment.

This tendency is as old as humanity itself as, living in tribes, the worst that could happen to an individual was to be cast out. Living alone in the wilderness without the safety and support of the tribe was the surest way to reach an untimely end. So, as human beings, we’re emotionally wired to avoid conflict to the maximum extent possible and to find ways to achieve harmony. Over more recent centuries, however, we have improved the human condition by not blindly following our instincts but instead allow our rational mind to overrule our emotional urges.

The illusion of alignment in teams is one of those cases where we have to stop following our instincts and instead rationally analyze what the underlying root cause for perceived disagreement is. Avoiding fooling ourselves into a false sense of alignment is critically important as it leads to numerous dysfunctions in teams, the three most important being demotivation, suboptimal outcomes and high degrees of wasted effort.

Demotivation occurs because team members are unable to operate in line with their beliefs and instead are forced to work as individuals that they are not. Although everyone can (and does) act out roles that aren’t aligned with their nature occasionally, having to do so on a continuous basis is emotionally draining. Suboptimal outcomes are caused by team members prioritizing different aspects of the work at hand and the results of individuals canceling out each other’s effects. Obviously, all this leads to lots of wasted effort.

If you want to avoid the illusion of alignment, there are at least three recommendations that I would like to share, i.e. quantification, transparency and a ‘disagree and commit’ culture. Whenever I run into the illusion of alignment and the pattern has set itself deeply in the team, one of the things that I focus on is to quantify the outcomes of whatever the team is working on. By forcing team members to express the intended outcomes in quantitative terms, it rapidly becomes clear when people disagree with each other. This then offers the basis for a discussion where we can take a deep dive into the perceived differences.

The basis for a team openly discussing differences of opinion is trust and transparency. Team members need to have the chance to express their viewpoints, be heard and everyone has to make sincere attempts to understand and empathize with the viewpoints that are brought forward. In many cases, I’ll have to step in to avoid a situation where two team members play out a behavioral pattern that they have fallen into many times before. In those cases, asking the team members to describe each other’s viewpoints until both feel that they’ve been properly represented can be a very good way to build this empathy.

Finally, the team needs a ‘disagree and commit’ culture where, rather than ending up in a state of paralysis, it reaches a decision and those disagreeing still commit to the decision and execute to the best of their ability. Having been heard and given the opportunity to express themselves is a critical element of this process, though.

Concluding, in many organizations and teams, there exists an illusion of alignment. Everyone operates in a model where it looks like everyone is in agreement but in practice, there are significant, or even fundamental, differences in opinion. As a leader, it’s critical for you to have zero tolerance for this behavioral pattern. Instinctively, it may ‘feel good’ to create illusory alignment but as long it’s not the real thing, your job is not done. Truly aligned teams create miracles, so make sure that you get your teams to that place. And remember that office politics, the bane of so many people’s existence, starts when differences of opinion and alignment mirages aren’t properly addressed.

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