Originally published January 27, 2021 on Forbes
Good leaders know that alignment is critical in building successful teams. Unfortunately, many of them don’t do it often enough. Frequently leaders adopt a one-and-done, event-based mentality, for example, aligning at yearly or quarterly strategy meetings. While alignment should certainly happen at regular strategy meetings, it should also happen at nearly every moment in between them.
Every interaction is an opportunity to see gaps or problems. A little disagreement here or a lack of understanding there are signals. Sometimes the signal is nothing and it solves itself. Sometimes it grows and derails projects and careers. A leader’s job is to be able to differentiate between the two and know when and where to step in to realign things.
Here are a few suggestions for how to approach regular team alignment.
Make alignment a priority
Alignment is hard work and as a result, leaders often deprioritize it. The rationale is that they can deliver a product or service without it so why go to all the trouble. On one hand they might be right: They might be able to jam through a given initiative without true alignment. But on the other hand, it’s shortsighted and can have serious costs. Long-term success requires leaders to think beyond delivering specific initiatives and focus on building sustainable business practices. Fostering alignment is an essential element of doing that.
Use simple structures
A simple yet powerful tool to maintain alignment is the structured meeting. At regular intervals (weekly, semi-monthly etc.) use something like the following five questions to guide your one-on-one and/or team meetings: (1) What were our successes? (2) What were our challenges? (3) What caused our results (4) What is our plan moving forward? (5) Where do we need support? These questions (or something similar) become a forcing mechanism to unearth challenges early on. Without simple structures like these, meetings will often devolve into report outs that don’t surface possible areas of misalignment.
Really listen. (Hear both what is and what isn’t said)
Sometimes people will acknowledge when they’re on a different page. Oftentimes they won’t and it takes reading between the lines. For example, their words might say things are OK, but their body language says there’s a problem. Or there may be a decrease in the reliability, quality or frequency of their communication. Or someone mentions backchannel conversations or frustrations that haven’t come out in the open. This kind of stuff will kill a team’s effectiveness and put goals in jeopardy. Listen for it and take it seriously.
Don’t avoid conflict
Trying to get aligned on something invariably involves conflict. Don’t avoid it. It can be tempting to hope it takes care of itself, but that seldom works. Usually, avoiding conflict just strengthens frustration and animosity creating strategic and execution risk, not to mention career risk. Where conflict management skills are lacking, get support and improve them; it’s a good investment of time.
Recognize that not everyone has to agree in order to align
A team where everyone agrees usually has critical blind spots, so that should never be a goal. Effective teams will always have disagreements. Alignment is finding a way to move forward despite disagreements. It may entail compromises or merely agreeing to support a path forward that isn’t a first choice. It only works through open dialogue and trust. This is why constantly listening for and addressing potential conflicts is so important. It allows disagreements to surface while still creating an opening for alignment.
Of all the things a leader must do, building alignment is one of the toughest: It requires considerable analytical and emotional awareness; it takes a tremendous amount of time and energy; and there’s no promise of success even if everything is done right.
But the payoffs of getting good at building alignment are huge: It deepens trust and relationships; it clarifies possibilities and problems; and it accelerates planning and execution.
Arguably, in our rapidly changing world, no leadership skill is more important.