‘Human alignment’ presents a tangible opportunity to build shared reality as a means of achieving increased and sustained performance.
By Lindsay Uittenbogaard
Increasing change, complexity, employee diversity and hybrid working have made alignment, as a means of improving organisational performance, a critical success factor. There is simply more to align on, more quickly, and a need to carry on doing that work. Supporting people to better align requires conscious effort.
In today’s world of ongoing hybrid interactions, people are simply less able to align with each other by themselves than they were before. A 2017 study by Gervase Bushe published in the Harvard Business Review revealed virtual teammates are 2.5 times more likely to perceive mistrust, incompetence, broken commitments and bad decision making with distant colleagues than those who are co-located. They also take five to 10 times longer to address those concerns.
According to Mirror Mirror, human alignment is defined as cognitive and behavioural coherence between people that leads to effective action. Conversely, misalignment is cognitive or behavioural dissonance between people that undermines effective action.
The behavioural aspect concerns learning behaviours, such as psychological safety and task cohesion. If a group can trust each other, they are more likely to open-up to each other’s points of view. They are more able to learn from each other and include each other’s perspectives. Note that alignment doesn’t mean people need to think the same thing or even agree with each other. More diverse perspectives create more options and better decision-making.
Cognitive and behavioural alignment is not to be confused with “strategic alignment” as set out by Jonathan Trevor in his book “Align.” Trevor explains how the strategically aligned organisation has well-constructed and well-connected linkages between its purpose, business strategy, organisational capability and architecture and management systems.
Lining up the parts of the organisation like this is a central part of organisational design work, necessary for the high performing organisation because people rely on these parts to be integrated in a way that informs and supports their work in implementing the strategy. But aligned people are integral to the performance of an aligned organisation.
Human alignment as an outcome
Human alignment is when people reach consensus on taking a certain path of action together, so their subsequent decisions and actions line up. Fundamentally, this sits at the team level, where people have the same goals. The scope is shared understanding of what the strategy means; its relevance to their work; how they collaborate to deliver together; how the wider organisation supports their alignment; and how key insights from that shared understanding are processed as useful feedback for the wider organisation. Successful human alignment between people can accelerate and improve innovation and performance.
As a hypothetical example, if four people in a 10-person team have slightly different interpretations of how the strategy relates to their work, they would likely make decisions and take actions that didn’t quite line up. The differences can become visible when they are asked to complete a statement.
Our role in implementing the strategy is to:
- Make sure the customer fulfilment process works properly
- Identify customer needs and ensure they get fulfilled
- Deal with customers and provide seamless delivery on behalf of the organisation
Are they delivering to a fulfilment process with pre-set objectives or are they asking customers what they want and then fulfilling them? Biases can be so strong that the interpretation of how a strategy applies to a team can morph over time according to the motivations of the individual.
Full alignment is an aspirational goal and is hard to achieve. There are potentially hundreds of incidents of misalignment between people, many of which are not significant enough to spend time discovering or addressing, so the trick is to find the gaps that present the biggest opportunities for improvement.
The challenges of human alignment
Even now, some two years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when remote working left many organisations across the globe in a state of strategic and human misalignment, we see little attention dedicated to addressing human alignment as a root cause of performance issues, for three main reasons:
- It’s difficult to spot the gaps: How do people know when they are misaligned, unless it is obvious, or the gaps crop up in conversation
- The process of achieving alignment is still seen as sensitive and difficult: It’s all too easy for alignment attempts between people to feel more like an uncomfortable, confronting mediation that gets side-tracked with blame and baggage from the past.
- People have not had good experiences of unsupported alignment attempts: Most conversations at work are about achieving better alignment between people, but many such conversations get “stuck in the weeds” including baggage from the past: “He thought a because of b.” “I didn’t know about x until y.” “They promised 1 but did 2,” etc. This is disheartening and unproductive.
- The team leader or manager is put into the position of leading the alignment process. Asking them to do this is asking them to move from a briefing role into a facilitation role. Unless the leader has good skills in this area, they will lack the objectivity and position to enable open sharing.
Now, however, there are emergent approaches address these challenges.
Enter the Communications Practitioner
Employee communications are in the perfect position to integrate leadership, line management, HR, and external facilitators in a data-driven alignment process, team by team. The outputs would be to fix misunderstandings, check assumptions, shore up feedback and ideas; the outcome would be a better shared reality that leads to effective action and improved performance.
A programme would take three steps:
- Use an alignment reporting tool, such as Mirror Mirror to identify and measure the alignment gaps. This looks a bit like an employee survey – but it is more team focused, more discovery based, and it has the intent to show the common ground and differences between how people see things at work.
- Coordinate a rapid response for change: With such insights, teams have the right entry point to structured, facilitated conversations. In workshops like this, people can recognise the gaps as opportunities, close those gaps, and co-create an action plan for change. A good facilitator will foster an environment of objectivity, curiosity, appreciation for dissenting views, support and challenge, trust of self and others. A further survey can measure what changed and why.
- Join up the findings and results with the wider organisation: the data and the progress made in the alignment process are fantastic insights for HR Leaders who are interested to know what’s really going on with people, for Employee Communication Directors who want to know how their work landed, and for Leadership Teams in general who want to see how change is progressing and how equipped people are to handle what’s coming up next.
Alignment as a standard
This process can happen online or in person within 4 – 6 hours, every six or 12 months, depending on the context. It is best timed with the announcement of a new strategy, transformation or change process. The longer term outcomes expected from an ongoing, well-managed alignment process are:
- More effective collaboration and better decisions and actions
- More inclusive, empowering culture
- More clarity and acceptance, engagement and ownership
- Surfacing of rich feedback for leaders
- Mitigating the risks of misalignment
Human alignment is in of itself a change proposition of inclusivity and learning. The key is recognising that designing the conditions for human alignment is as much a part of getting to it as facilitating the conversations on it.