There’s a strange Bermuda Triangle in every organization that leads to unexplained crashes: project crashes, good-people-leaving crashes, cost-crashes, reputational crashes — you name it. The phenomenon goes like this:
People A (this could be one person or a group) have a perspective about something going on at work that conflicts with how People B see it. This could be about different interpretations of words in a plan, or a different understanding about the implications of a key decision. Neither People A nor People B are aware of this conflict, because it hasn’t yet come up in conversation. They are just hearing what makes sense and pushing to get things done quickly.
People A and People B go on using their conflicting lines of logic to make decisions, take actions and influence others, which widens the gap between them. Then, a little further down the line, the resulting developments simply don’t make sense anymore. People A and People B, plus those implicated, find that conversations get confusing, cooperation becomes difficult, morale drops and the outcomes are not what was expected.
Now they’re in a tangle. Who thought what, and why? What just happened, and now what? It’s expensive, troubling and unproductive. While the root cause was always misalignment, blame is pointed at the visible symptoms of the problem: poor planning, poor communication, poor leadership, disengaged employees, ill-fitting systems, etc. To “fix” the problem, someone is let go. Someone else is hired. The plan changes. Leadership trainings run for a week. Of course, none of this recognizes what’s really going on — the Bermuda Triangle that is misalignment.
To be clear, misalignment inherently sits between people in how they understand their context and practice of collaboration. It’s not about the strategy, the communication message, leadership or personalities, per se. It’s about how all of that adds up to form diverging views between people.
Now, with greater complexity, change and remote working, there’s more scope for misalignment, which is completely inevitable. People interpret things differently, and they have their own biases and motivations. They form assumptions and jump to conclusions in an attempt to make sense of things and then use those stories as the basis of actions. We call this “The Fog.” It’s when The Fog gets too thick that it needs attention.
Managing misalignment sounds fluffy, but a rigorous, data-driven, constructive approach at the team level shows high levels of efficacy, and it doesn’t take long or cost much.
Identify the Gaps
It takes a mature leader to know that what people really think and feel affects performance, and it takes bravery to go that next step and find out. Tools like Mirror Mirror compare how people perceive their context at work to find common ground and differences. By gathering anonymous alignment insights in this way, you remove the need for people to articulate their concerns and point the finger of blame, which is never a good start to effective dialogue. Once the gaps are on the table in black and white, you have the starting point for a straightforward conversation beginning with two questions:
- Do we recognize this reflection of our current reality?
- What do we need to do differently to close these gaps?
“If you're looking to use dialogue to help people align, even the most skilled approaches will only get you so far, because they are limited to what people are able to see needs attention.”
Open the Conversation — on Two Levels
Safe, constructive, informed conversations get to the point. They’re not personal — they’re focused on the shared goal. Good facilitators can provide value through structured questions to move the process along smoothly.
First, people need clarity on the strategic frame in which they are operating. Alignment insights show where the gaps are so they can be closed with information about the goals or the wider context.
Second, people need to align with each other so they can collaborate to implement the strategy. This piece isn’t about information, because you cannot tell people to align. This is where people need to learn from each other by sharing their views and explaining the rationale behind them. Once people are heard and hear the views of others in an open and respectful environment, they can empathize, find new ways forward or more readily agree to a course of action they may not have chosen themselves.
The Nature of Alignment
Misalignment is not an opinion or standpoint, it is missed meaning between people. It's inevitable, and it can be managed. Perhaps more important is the understanding that alignment is not necessarily about people agreeing with each other. It is about finding agreement on the collective course of action. By having people open up, get to the point and learn from each other, you’ll probably find you don’t need as much bravery as you thought.
Lindsay Uittenbogaard began her career as an entrepreneur, running small businesses in the U.K. She then spent 15 years in employee communication leadership roles with multinational organizations in the energy, IT and telecommunications industries based in the Netherlands. It was the sharp contrast between these micro and macro working environments that led her to research and create an alignment approach in 2016 called Mirror Mirror. An IABC Accredited Business Communicator, Uittenbogaard also is a certified member of the Reputation Institute and the CIPD. She is a published author in the Gower Handbook on Internal Communication 2008 and qualified to post-graduate level.