Workplace Wisdom

This Is What Happens When a Leadership Team Falls Out of Alignment

Misaligned leadership eventually disrupts teams and their work, putting employees at cross purposes, log-jamming initiatives, and making people at all levels feel stalemated or overwhelmed with negotiating daily details. Even misaligned leaders themselves can feel disconcerted and annoyed.

It’s obvious that when people have to fight their way through their jobs every day, they’re not likely to have any energy or headspace for new ideas or improvements. So why do so many organizations tolerate this situation?

Is Your Leadership Misaligned? Here’s How to Tell

If team members are on edge, not trusting each other and feeling uncomfortable about which steps to take, it’s the leaders’ responsibility to sort things out. So if you suspect that your work group or organization is suffering from leadership misalignment, ask these questions:

  • Are we following our agreed-upon strategy and plan?
  • Do we have agreement about the goals we’re trying to achieve and the outcomes we want?
  • Do we have agreement about roles and responsibilities down to the task level?

If the answer to any or all of these questions is no, don’t panic. That scenario is perfectly common — after all, smart people should have divergent plans and ideas from time to time or based on their responsibilities and perspectives, and many of them work out their differences amicably. But if the leadership overlooks or tolerates the incongruities, or lacks the skill to bring everyone back together when things fall out of sync, then organizational dynamics can gradually spin out of control.

It’s not enough for leaders to agree upon the desired results, since they often use the same conceptual language but envision different outcomes. Also, their beliefs about operating conditions and how to achieve their goals may be completely different. So get down to specifics, asking questions like: “What are the next steps you would take?” Or “Please describe the next few months’ worth of activities, and how you’ll dovetail with other departments’ work.”

It’s Not About You, It’s About Us

The biggest leading question can’t be asked often enough: “Do we see this the same way?” Because if you don’t, it’s too easy for an individual or group to declare, “This is my part, and that’s your part.” Not only might those parts overlap and cause conflict, but there could also be a significant gap between them.

In contrast, when a team sees a problem as “our problem,” members are more likely to work together on deciding which pieces really do belong to one party or the other.

It’s much better to include the leadership in these debates rather than just the people experiencing the difficulty. That way, the leaders will maintain a realistic understanding of how the organization’s innards work, and can continue to provide guidance.

To Bring the Team Together, Align Goals with Reality

To reunite the team, participants must be willing to address each other’s positions and concerns, both conceptually and at the level of practical operational reality. But leaders who aren’t personally dealing with the concrete reality of who-does-what-to-whom typically are unaware of what happens at the lower levels.

For example, when a team member expressed concerns and requested clarity about alignment from a senior leader I worked with, my client answered, “Oh, no — we have clarity, whether you see it or not. Just do what I tell you and it will be clear.” Indeed, it was quite clear what this leader wanted the outcomes to be, but because he was neither familiar with nor interested in the details of how various work groups were trying to accomplish those results, he couldn’t understand why they were in daily conflict, or how much damage that conflict was doing.

Give Everyone a Hand in the Action

Sadly, it’s not enough to specify a goal clearly and assume that attitudes and work processes will fall into place. If colleagues aren’t aligned, leaders may have to spell out how the work is to be done — so long as they understand the implications of their directives.

These requirements should be communicated to everyone who has a hand in the action — preferably multiple times and with as many people as possible gathered together to hear them. There also should be room for employees’ lived experience of the job to bubble back up to the leaders, informing their future thinking, and prompting them to reconsider any inaccurate directives or assumptions.

Getting team members on the same page — about the plan and its implications, expectations for goal achievement, and who gets to take which shots and shoulder which responsibilities — will go a long way toward reducing the natural friction and inefficiencies common in organizations today.

Onward and upward —

LK

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