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lead to team alignment

Effective discussions
lead to team alignment

It often seems that in order to get alignment, everyone must compromise, leaving no one really satisfied with the decision. Or, if a majority viewpoint is adopted, then the minority is left in disagreement and, perhaps, pulling in the opposite direction.
Alignment. That ever elusive holy grail that most teams seem to be seeking. You might even say that alignment is one of the components that defines an effective team. I would define alignment as a mutual relationship of alliance, support, and most importantly, participation in fulfilling decisions about future action and direction.
It’s not too much of a stretch for most people to understand that alignment can be gained only through conversation. So the question that might be asked is, “Is there any kind of conversation that guarantees alignment?” No, but there are modes of conversation that foster the development of shared meaning and understanding.
From the team conversations I’ve seen, what often turns non-alignment into alignment is people understanding each other beyond the limits of their normal perspective. If people are willing to seek the true meaning of what others are saying by trying to understand the perspective of the speaker, they usually find a lot more commonality in thinking than was initially apparent.
Unfortunately, when critical decisions must be made, conversations often take the form of verbal jousting. When careers, big money and the future of the business are on the line, people tend to advocate strongly for their opinions and what they think is the right way.
Obviously, that kind of conversation can have only winners and losers. Even when the team members know they want to develop win/win solutions, the effect often is that only certain people make most of the critical decisions. Everyone else places the decision somewhere in their list of priorities, depending on how much they agree with the decision. The frustrating thing for many managers is that time and again they think they have alignment on critical issues, and yet, the actions people take are inconsistent with an aligned team.
The first step in generating alignment is for the team to commit to alignment. In other words, the team needs to come to a common understanding about what alignment is and then make a serious commitment to it. And everyone should know that alignment does not necessarily mean agreement on all decisions. Aligned teams share the same underlying commitments, but not always the same views on how to achieve those commitments. It is important that team members know that there is seldom a single right way to do anything.
By accepting this view of alignment, teams can develop shared commitments and then agree to align behind an approach to achieving the commitments. This leads to the problem, however, that a team member may be agreeing to support a course of action that is not the way they would normally think or approach taking action. That creates the very likely possibility that there will be real misunderstandings about what is being agreed to or real confusion on how to take effective action. This is where conversations that build shared meaning and understanding become critical.
There are two types of these conversations that need to be learned by leaders: dialogue and effective discussion. The purpose of dialogue is to learn, not to decide. And since dialogue is a component of effective discussion, it is an important conversation to learn how to use. The purpose of effective discussion is to come to a conclusion, reach a decision or agreement, or identify some priorities. Both types of conversations require a commitment to question or inquire into other peoples’ perspectives, points of view, meanings, values and frameworks of thinking with the intention of gaining new understanding.
Dialogue effectively picks at the seams of what holds the “truth” in place in people’s thinking and in the organization. The ways people act and what they believe are based on beliefs and shared ways of thinking that, when rigorously examined and questioned, may prove to be ways of thinking that are no longer valid or effective. Yet for the most part, people will believe these “truths” absolutely until someone has the guts or foresight to ask “What do we believe?” and “Why do we believe it?”.
Another effective question that initiates a dialogue is “When we say that, what do we really mean by it?” Effective dialogue also requires each individual in the conversation to ask themselves what they believe, why they believe it, and what’s the meaning behind their beliefs. Then they must have the courage to hold their ideas and beliefs up to the light of their team members’ scrutiny.
Effective discussion starts with the ability to dialogue. But, whereas pure dialogue is not intended to decide anything, effective discussions intend to come to an end point. So advocating points of view is a necessary part of effective discussion. However, it needs to be balanced by the willingness to explore the meanings, beliefs, and frameworks of thinking that lead to the points of view. Effective discussions use impasses in the discussion as a signal to back off of advocating and to start exploring hidden meanings and thinking (using dialogue).
When this approach is used, teams often discover that underneath the impasse there is a lot of common understanding and meaning with which to build a decision that works for everyone. Even when disagreement remains, there often is enough in common that people can commit to supporting and participating in a decision that doesn’t fully fit their point of view. Additionally, a common understanding of what is really being agreed to is built.
Leaders and managers may have difficulty implementing dialogue and effective discussions. They take more time than the kind of conversations that you find in most organizations. Because there always seems to be too much to do and not enough time to do it, most organizations’ conversations can be characterized by “get to the bottom line and hurry up.” This kind of conversation eliminates the exchange of understanding and meaning that is critical in times of major organizational change. People assume they really understand what is being said, when it’s much more likely that their understanding is based on the way the organization has worked in the past.
Leaders and managers can either take the time to have conversations that generate common meanings and understandings in their organizations or they can continue to deal with the consequences of misaligned teams.
(Paul Fraser is president of PDF Associates, an organizational development and management consulting firm specializing in accelerating change for organizations. He can be reached at 381-5350 or 381-5212 [fax]).

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