Workplace culture and employee engagement have become pervasive catchphrases, appearing frequently in the media and on business forums. Huge sums of money have been spent on “culture events" that supposedly deliver a change but in fact just result in a brief spike in behaviour change with no sustainability. How many times have you attended a training course and mostly forgotten about the content within a week? A specific area of culture where organisations often struggle is the achievement of high levels of team alignment. Poor alignment displays itself in a number of ways, some obvious and some more subtle:
• People not supporting each other, or engaging in undermining behaviour
• Departments not cooperating, or in extreme circumstances, being at all-out war with each other
• Individuals allowing misunderstandings and disagreements to linger until they become resentments
• Energy being wasted on politics and gossip, which senior leaders may never see or hear.
These behaviours are often put down to ‘personality differences’, but in almost every case there are deeper issues - a lack of common purpose and unclear vision; a lack of clear expectations; an absence of clear standards of behavior; or a lack of collaboration skills.
The business of building alignment is Leadership. It is a challenging process requiring strong interpersonal skills and a commitment to sustaining the effort. This process never ends for a leader if he or she wants to continue to be effective and deliver results.
How to build alignment
The process of building alignment requires a number of steps and commitments. The first step is to bring leaders together to define or clarify the vision and mission of the business. This must be an open discussion where everyone is invited to speak up. It is also necessary to define how the leaders will work together and what behaviours are expected from a leadership team. These behaviours should include:
• A practice of consciously listening to each other. It's not enough to say, "I’m a great listener". A determined practice to constantly improve our listening is required because we all have times when our listening isn't great. It's useful to remember that it's not what was said that drives action (and alignment), it's what is heard.
• A willingness to speak up even when it's uncomfortable. If people don't speak up in an organisation, the collective wisdom is missed. A leader must therefore create an environment that is as safe as possible for people to speak up.
• Fostering a belief that "we are all in this together". This is the glue that binds a team and enables alignment to occur much more naturally.
• Making clearly understood commitments that are honoured by each person, and supporting others to honour their commitments.
• Making the practice of acknowledgment and appreciation a regular habit. This is very powerful when done peer to peer. After all, in sporting teams, appreciation from your team mate is highly valued.
• Asking the question, "Are we including the right people in this discussion?" and "Who needs to be included in this decision process?" Getting this right is a constant challenge and when done well, builds engagement and alignment. The whole alignment puzzle is a mixture of art and science. A leader’s willingness to recognise that we are fallible and can make mistakes will go a long way in inviting others to see our humanity, engage with our leadership, and buy into a common purpose and direction.
There is no doubt that a team that is strongly aligned and collaborating well will outperform the competition, every time.