By Seth R. Silver, Ed.D&Timothy M. Franz, Ph.D., c. 2017
For most people, the word “alignment”conjures up an image of straightening thewheels on their car. Unfortunately, it is a concept not used often enoughwith work teams. Inour consultingexperience over the past twenty years, we have found that ‘alignment’isanindispensable,if not always obvious,factor that drives a positive work environment,highemployee engagement, strong teamwork,and ultimately great results for the organization. This observation raisestwo important questions that every teamleadershould consider: 1) What exactly is team alignment?and 2)How can people, even when working virtually, create that almost magicalstate of team alignment? In this article we provide some ideas to answerthese two questions. Further, we have developeda measure of team alignment which can help any team determine their baseline level and assess where they might be able to improve.
What is Team Alignment?
Random House Dictionary definesalignment as: “to ally oneself with a group, party or cause”, and “the proper adjustment of components ….. for coordinated functioning”.This admittedly uninspiring definition suggestsmoving from an individualto ateam focus, to achieve the outcomes of coordination and efficiency. More insightful, Peter Sengedescribes alignment as the necessary ingredient forindividual effort to become team effort in his 1990 classic on teams, The Fifth Discipline. He states that when a team isaligned, “There is less wasted energy. In fact, a resonance or synergy develops, like the “coherent” light of a laser rather than the incoherent and scattered light of a light bulb” (p. 234).Alignment, in the context of the workplace, impliesa commonality of purpose,an intense teamfocus, improved efficiency and cohesion;synchronized and coordinated effort;an almost intuitive understanding of how to complement one another’s efforts, as seen in fast-moving team sports like hockey or basketball; and integrating one’s personal interests with those of the team or organization. In other words, it is that group state where members are ‘on the same page’, ‘rowing in the same direction’, and ‘fighting the same battles’. In nature, we see the power of alignment when wolveshunt as a pack, orwhen geese fly in a V formation.
At times we have all probably experienced alignment at work. We often ask people to describe the “best team” they were ever on, and the factors that made it the best. These reflections almost alwayshave similar themes: great team-members; honest communications; compelling goals; high trust and commitment; high respect for others’ contributions; mutual encouragement; clear expectations and direction; a good leader who put the team first and listened; humor and fun; and celebrating the small and big wins.And although the word may not have come to mind first, the ‘best team’ was in fact aligned. There was probably little or no dysfunctional conflict;the team and itsleader were ‘in sync’ and supported one another; and everyone shared the same goals. In most cases, we findthat‘alignment’, once identified, is indeed a keycomponentin any experienceof a‘best team’.
So here is our second question: How can organizationscreateteam alignment in the workplace? It can occur through luck, because of an effective leader,trial and error over time,or maybejust ‘good chemistry’. But given that luck is not a strategy, we have found that there arepracticalways tofoster team alignmentintentionally. “Team building” is one way, although it has limitations.This is because most team buildingtends to be infrequent and usuallyfocuses on building socialconnectionsrather thanstrengthening alignment on work-related goals or relationships. Further, team building can be difficult in this age of virtual teamsand remote team members. That stated, team building with the explicit goal of ‘getting everyone on the same page’ in matters related to work can be helpful. Routine team meetingscan alsohelp createteam alignment. But these meetingsneed to befacilitatedwell andoffer safeopportunities forhonestconversation about what gets done, how it gets done, and how team members and the leader will worktogether. Unfortunately, most meetings are notwell run, are too often pressed for time, and do not reallyprovide a ‘safe space’ to explorehow team relationshipsare functioning and what can improve.
An effective process we knowto develop and strengthen team alignment is called a ‘workplace covenant’. Please notethe word “covenant” here is not meant in a religious sense, but only as a reference tomakingprofessional commitments. Others might similarly refer to these as ‘workplacecontracts’ or ‘workplace commitments’.In brief, aworkplace covenant is an agreed-upon set of behavioral commitments that a manager makes to his/her team, and a reciprocal set of behavioral commitments that the team then makes to the manager and one another. The context of these promises is ‘what key behaviors and attitudes would it take from me/us, to help you succeed’. Both sides come up with their lists independently; they share, discuss and as appropriate edit/mergetheir lists; and when both sets of now refinedpromises are sufficiently understood and accepted by the other ‘party’, they are signed as a gesture of commitment.These behavioral promises, or covenants, are reviewed formally several times a year (every two months seemsquite effective); informally on a frequent basis (e.g. in routine 1:1s between the manager and a team member); and are referred to often so that the manager and team can later ‘check in’ on the work relationships andexchange feedback on what couldimproveto ensure continued and strengthened support. In short, the workplace covenants are behavior contracts designed to make sure the manager is focused on supporting the team and that the team is focused on supporting the manager and fellow team members. Without a doubt, one of the results from this processisteam alignment.
We have used workplace covenants with clients for years, with very positive effects. For purposes of our work with teams, we developed a brief measure of alignment, inspired by studies fromthe marriage counseling field. After all, marriage counseling cares about ‘alignment’ in married partners and the extent to which they are ‘on the same page’ on such topics as raising children, spending money, where to live, etc. We then modified marriage counseling items for use with teams.Hence, our survey measures key aspects of alignment between a manager and team.
Assessing Leader/Team Alignment
|Strongly Disagree||Disagree||Neutral||Agree||Strongly agree|
|1. This team and its leader share the same goals.||1||2||3||4||5|
|2. This team and its leader share the same views about where the team is going.||1||2||3||4||5|
|3. This team and its leader agree about the best use of all of our time.||1||2||3||4||5|
|4. This team and its leader agree about the best use of our resources.||1||2||3||4||5|
|5. This team and its leader have similar priorities||1||2||3||4||5|
|6. This team and its leader can coordinate the actions of team members.||1||2||3||4||5|
|7. This team and its leader are generally aware of what each other are doing.||1||2||3||4||5|
|8. This team and its leader agree on boundaries.||1||2||3||4||5|
|9. This team and its leader agree about team capabilities.||1||2||3||4||5|
|TOTAL OF ALL CIRCLED ITEMS|
Interpreting Your Score
Add up the score of the leader and add up the scores of each team member. Then, average the scores of the team members.
AVERAGE OF TEAM MEMBER’S SCORES
The scores can range from 9 to 45. Our initial research demonstrates that a score of 9 to 32 means not yet aligned;a score of 33 to 36 means becoming aligned; and finally 37 to 45 means aligned. It is also possible to compare the leader to the team member average. If the leader and the average of the team members averages are more than approximately 5 points apart, there is a potentially meaningful gap in alignment.
So again, how can you ‘get on the same page’ and create team alignment in your team? We suggest you start by using the above survey to measure your team’s baseline level of alignment. If your scores are pretty high, above 36, congratulations –you are aligned. If however you are like many other teams and yourratings are not where you hoped, then the ideas noted earlier may be helpful. In particular, the workplace covenant process will help you develop and strengthen alignment over time as you conduct ‘covenant reviews’; refer often to the promises made; and as both the team and the manager receive periodic feedback on their respectivecommitments.
Thewords ‘trust’, ‘engagement’ and ‘accountability’ are used often in organizations, and are sought afteras essentialto a positive and productive workplace. We believe ‘alignment’ needs to be added to the organizational lexicon. Team alignment is theunnoticed yet always experienced factor in‘best teams’; it is that magic state that turns individual effort into coordinatedteamwork; and it is the key to improving teams and making them successful, rewarding and even more productive.