Much has been written about the importance of alignment. But lately I’ve noticed that attaining alignment is more nuanced than we usually acknowledge. It’s more art than science. Too much alignment diminishes both commitment and creativity. In the extreme, you’ll get a dictatorship. Too little alignment diminishes focus and wastes productive energy. In the extreme you’ll get anarchy. Dictatorships can at least function. Anarchies cannot. So where’s the Goldilocks Zone? And how does a leader get people into that zone? That’s the art. As usual, I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts.
First, you staunchly insist on adherence to your core — your mission, vision and values. This is where it’s okay to use your power. But you’re always going to run into grey areas, situations where it’s not clear what’s the right thing to do. In these cases, before using your power, I suggest open discussion about the various options and how each one aligns with your core values. You might well not achieve alignment through these discussions. But when you do use your power, people who disagree will know that they’ve been heard. It’s usually not the leader’s decision that really bothers people, it’s the process. Transparency has immense value.
If a person frequently feels out of alignment with decisions at this level, if he frequently feels that leaders are not making the right decisions, he should seek another organization.
The more nuanced situations occur when you have a strategy or an outcome in mind, but your people aren’t convinced about it. You might use your power to say, essentially, “We’re going in this direction. I’m happy to discuss your concerns, but we’re moving forward on this.” You’ve made your position clear. You’ve set direction. After you’ve listened, there’s more you should do. You should ask for the order. “I know you have concerns, but please give this a chance. Please support this and we’ll see where it goes. If it doesn’t work, we’ll change it.” You’ve asked for alignment, even though the person has misgivings. At first, you’ll get compliance rather than commitment. Sometimes that’s the best you can do at that point in time.
A frequent variation on this occurs after your people have accepted the direction (perhaps not enthusiastically), and they aren’t in alignment about how to move forward. Of course, as the leader it’s your obligation to suggest an approach. But there will be times when people just don’t feel good about the approach. They don’t align. They might comply with your direction, but both their commitment and engagement are low. This is very much not the Goldilocks zone.
When you’re in this situation, I assure you it doesn’t feel good to them. The first thing you need to do is acknowledge that it doesn’t feel good to you either. You need to state your commitment to figuring out an approach they can support. You need to listen to them and make changes. And you need to keep making changes until you find something they’ll support. This can be frustrating for all involved. If you believe in your strategy, you need to have some intestinal fortitude. Acknowledge the frustration, stay committed and ask them to stay committed to figuring it out.
There are times when you’re better off finding a direction or an approach your people will voluntarily embrace, rather than forcing your ideas on them. You can’t use your power to push people into the Goldilocks zone. So here’s where the art comes in. Knowing when it’s time to stop pushing people in a certain direction and instead become aware of what direction they want to go. And embrace it. Align with them and see what happens. You might learn something.
Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.