From hidden contradictions to shared meaning: the team-alignment imperative

If you have worked with people in team settings, you know that people interpret things differently. Yet, in my experience we often underestimate to what extent different perspectives can conspire to undermine team effectiveness. Alignment – a common understanding about shared goals and how to achieve them – is right at the heart of effective team delivery.

What alignment means and why it is important.

How do you know whether or not a team is really on the same page? What interventions are effective in getting team members aligned? First, let’s get a common misunderstanding out of the way. Alignment doesn’t necessarily mean everyone has to think the same thing, or even agree with each other on everything. In the research I reviewed on the topic, alignment is mostly defined as a state in which people with shared goals genuinely agree on taking a specific course of action.

We can distinguish between two types of alignment: cognitive and social. Simply put, cognitive alignment is about agreement on the contents and social alignment is about agreeing on collective action. Research also shows that team alignment is a critical trait of high-performing teams and companies, while also encouraging employee engagement and well-being.

“Working teams in organisations are faced with challenges of establishing common frames of reference, resolving discrepancies in understanding, negotiating issues of individual and collective action, and coming to a joint understanding.”

Why misalignment is humanity’s natural state.

According to social constructionism theory, people create meaning in various ways based on their social relativity. Because there really is no such thing as an objective reality, people need to first understand each other’s interpretation of reality before they can effectively work together. In other words, misalignment is as natural as the sun rising every day.

In my experience the problem is not that misalignment happens, but that we all too often fail to deal with it effectively or even worse, ignore the issue altogether and hope that it will just go away.

Teams face three kinds of obstacles to alignment:

  1. Lack of a shared frame of reference. To understand each other, teams require a shared frame of reference.
  2. Disagreements in understanding. Teams must build a common language that is meaningful for them to reduce misunderstanding.
  3. Individual and collective action challenges. Teams must feel internally accountable to each other, which requires a shared understanding of their common goal.

These alignment gaps often sit in the ‘blind spot’ because who can tell when meaning is not shared, unless it becomes evident after things go wrong? For teams, this means that a shared understanding of team reality can never be presumed but instead requires a concerted and ongoing effort.

How to get from misalignment to alignment.

At Mirror Mirror, we’ve been working for years to research and develop a unique approach to team alignment called Team Reflector. The Team Reflector is both a diagnostic tool and a dialogue-based framework to facilitate the process of improved shared understanding.

By comparing how people in teams perceive their whole system at work, the Team Reflector identifies and measures cognitive and behavioural alignment gaps, surfacing the assumptions, misunderstandings and conflicting interpretations that undermine progress.

This data, along with a flexible dialogue-based framework, is used by independent practitioners to facilitate an informed alignment process to support teams in closing those gaps. The benefits are more clarity, engagement, shared ownership, and preparedness to succeed. Highly-aligned teams also display elevated levels of psychological safety, team cohesion, and sense of group potency and interdependence.

The Team Reflector method is based on relevant and validated scientific research and has built a strong track record since it was first introduced in 2016.

Find out more about alignment here: https://mirrormirroralignment.com and contact me at lindsay@mirrormirrorhub.com.

Lindsay Uittenbogaard, Founder and CEO of Mirror Mirror.