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Leaders: 5 Keys to Building Alignment

Let’s talk about alignment. Specifically, let’s talk about the challenges inherent in building alignment among diverse stakeholders and stakeholder groups. I’ll begin with some general observations about trust, communication and alignment, and then offer five helpful guidelines for collaborative leaders.

Have you ever noticed how some people can say the “wrong words” and, still, you get what they mean? And with others, they might say all the “right words,” but you just don’t know for sure, or don’t quite believe, what they’re trying to say? Body language, tone of voice, and other non-verbal cues have a lot to do with these effects. But when conflict arises, trust most profoundly determines how well we’re likely to receive a speaker’s intended meaning.

Initially, and without any real history together, the trust that we feel toward others is largely based upon assumptions. We notice superficial characteristics like skin & eye color, hair styles, clothes and fashion choices, accents and vocal intonations, level of enthusiasm, even whether people say “please” and “thank you.” Within a split second, we just “get a good feeling” or “get a bad feeling” about a person, without consciously recognizing the bias inherent in our initial assessments.

In working with people from diverse backgrounds, we humans unconsciously apply our own cultural standards to assess our co-worker’s trustworthiness. Low trust begets lower trust, and in turn, undermines our ability to communicate effectively to build alignment. Since alignment is so fundamental to effective collaboration, most culturally diverse teams find it challenging to collaborate. So what can we do?

Paradoxically, trust is not built most effectively by focusing directly on building trust. Team offsites and “trust falls” provide only limited and short-lived benefits. Instead, co-workers must learn to communicate well enough to establish clear expectations of each other on the job. Only then are they able to deliver upon those expectations, which is ultimately what builds trust.

1. Silence Is Not Golden

When levels of trust are low, co-workers who avoid communicating miss out on critical opportunities to build trust, and inadvertently allow mistrust to deepen. That’s because fear and mistrust are linked. When we don’t trust another, we’ll tend to act in ways that protect against our worst imagined fears. When fear is driving our imagination, even the smallest and most nuanced “data” will likely get interpreted through that fearful lens, prompting less trusting and more tentative behaviors, and contributing to a downward spiral.

To do: Encourage workers to engage, interact and communicate with each other on a regular and frequent basis. When conflict arises, discourage co-workers from remaining silent as a coping strategy.

2. Learn and Teach the Skill of Dialogue

Not all communication is equal, and not all communication builds alignment. Dialogue is a skill that enables groups of people to develop holistic understanding. It supports a group in talking and listening such that meaning flows and shared understanding grows among the members. Each person contributes and clarifies his or her thoughts, experiences, questions and concerns to the topic at hand. In dialogue, you do not advocate or argue for your viewpoint. You simply contribute your understanding of things, your experience, and your perspective to the whole.

Dialogue looks and feels like a conversation in slow motion. Participants are discouraged from interrupting. A group must dramatically slow the speed of conversation in order to listen and reflect more deeply, thus integrating the group’s knowledge, insights and experiences.

To do: Teach, encourage and practice dialogue. When necessary, help others distinguish between the moments when they are debating or arguing as compared to engaging in dialogue.

3. Listening and Restating ≠ Agreeing

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is simply to listen to someone expressing something with which you disagree? It feels as though we’re tacitly agreeing as long as we remain silent, and that’s excruciating! We feel compelled to interrupt and express our point of view. Too often, that’s what meetings look like -- one long series of interrupted half-sentences, sometimes even punctuated by subtle attacks on each other’s character or personality.

Counter-intuitively, if we listen and reflect (accurately restate) the other person’s point of view first, they’ll feel heard, thus improving the chances that they can hear us. If your goal is to build alignment, starting off by interrupting and expressing disagreement generally won’t work.

To do: Practice listening, reflecting and expressing appreciation for others and their contributions. Look for and acknowledge any specific areas of agreement. Only then is it constructive to offer countervailing perspectives and opinions.

4. Emotions Are Inevitable, Emotional Outbursts Are Not

All people experience emotions, some more intensely than others. Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize the emotions that are operating in us and in others, and having the ability consciously to choose our responses. When we are gripped by emotions and “lose control,” we react without thinking about the consequences. Later, we often regret the longer-term impacts of those emotionally-triggered reactions.

Emotionally charged (especially angry) outbursts trigger the brain’s fight-flight-freeze response in others. Feeling attacked, most people lose their ability to communicate effectively. They become aggressive, defensive, or non-communicative, none of which serves to build alignment.

To do: When conflict arises, learn to distinguish between “the observable data” (behaviors that you could capture on a video camera) and “the story” you make up about other people’s motives. Whenever possible, take a moment to center yourself. Then seek to clarify what happened (the observable data) and what it means to you (your story). Solicit and be open to other stories. When appropriate, share how you felt (the impact), and how you would like things to work differently in the future (a request.) Most importantly, avoid making general statements about other people’s character or personality.

5. Bring In an Objective Facilitator

The skills that we’re talking about here are fairly easy to understand, but really quite difficult to master. Many of us struggle at communicating constructively when we’re feeling strong emotions or when we lack a sufficient sense of trust and safety with others. Long standing communication habits are also very difficult to change. For these reasons, developing better and more constructive communication skills requires awareness, practice and support.

To do: When the stakes are sufficiently high, engage a skilled and neutral facilitator – someone who can help co-workers notice when they’re falling into some of the common and very human pitfalls that undermine alignment.

Summing It Up

By following these guidelines, you’ll increase your team’s ability to communicate, build alignment around common goals and expectations, and establish the conditions where trust can grow. Getting from clear expectations to trust is then a matter of following through. In my next post, we’ll address what it takes to build ownership, the key to good follow-through.


Mark Voorsanger is a consultant, speaker and executive coach who has been leading and managing teams for more than 25 years. He is a member of the training team for the Collaborative Operating System, a powerful framework for teams and organizations that need to collaborate effectively.

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