More change, more remote work, and more diversity means there are inevitably more assumptions, more misunderstandings and more disconnects between people. These disconnects are fundamentally important because they’re about how people understand the strategy and its relevance to their work in practice. We at Mirror Mirror call them ‘alignment gaps’.
Too often, managers and leaders believe that the important gaps will get picked up and sort themselves out. While this might happen, most are buried under the surface, leading people to take conflicting decisions and actions that undermine performance.
Alignment doesn’t mean everyone has to think the same thing, it means they need a shared understanding and compatible views to take an agreed course of action.
These alignment gaps are the nuanced differences in how people define a concept; the different ways people think developments in their industry or organization will impact their team; the different concerns and frustrations people have. They sit at the heart of every issue you can imagine, leading to all the unnecessary work, cost, conflicts, and frustrations that fracture our organizations and undermine performance.
Our work to identify and measure alignment gaps in teams over the past 5 years has led us to look very closely at what’s going on here. We’ve come to find that misalignment presents in four ways: information gaps, perception gaps, structure / system gaps, and those we call ‘anti-team’ gaps. Patrick Lencioni has done a lot to deepen awareness about dysfunctional behaviours in teams. This is slightly different because the field of alignment is concerned with the extent of shared understanding (or not) between people in teams. This can be cognitive, behavioural; strategic, and operational.
Information gaps are also driven by error, neglect, or incompetence. The issues here look like misinformation, missing information, or unclear information. These can be crucially about the strategy, how it relates to what people do, what roles people have, or what developments are taking place. They can also be about tactical and operational matters: where documents are located, what training is available, what was discussed at the last meeting. Fixing these involves awareness and acceptance of the gap of course, plus provision of the right information: good strategic narrative or effective knowledge sharing.
Perception gaps are the trickiest because they can be driven by diversity or situational incongruence: past experiences; differences in personality, beliefs, and values; biases and assumptions; fixed mindsets; non-inclusive behaviours; conflicting objectives. As with all alignment gaps, you need awareness and acceptance of the gaps, willingness to close the gap, and here’s the key: effective conversation, using openness, respect, and inclusivity. Doing this can lead to more empathy for others’ points of view, clearing of false assumptions, better shared mental models, new bridges between two perspectives, and acceptance of team decisions. Here then, alignment isn’t necessarily about people thinking the same thing, it’s about people agreeing to the same course of action.
Structure / system gaps are driven by error, neglect or incompetence and show up as missing or broken processes, policies, tools, reporting lines, or other structures. To close these gaps, you need awareness and acceptance of the gap(s), and the willingness and capability to create and embed solutions that work.
Anti-team gaps happen when people purposefully create disinformation or hide information, which essentially creates gaps in how people understand things. This can be conscious or not, well-intended or not, and they do this for personal gain or to protect themselves or others. It stems from greed or fear, for example, fear of being seen as negligent or incompetent, fear of being excluded, fear of conflict, hurt or loss.
Here are some examples of how anti-team gaps come about:
- Paul doesn’t fully disclose performance results in a meeting because he thinks it will look bad (fear of being seen as incompetent / attempts to protect others) –
- Ray uses someone else’s slides as his own to earn more credibility (creating disinformation / seeking personal advancement)
- Helen doesn’t tell her team more about what’s going on with the business’ divestment plans to spare them the anxiety and disruption she thinks will happen if she does (attempting to protect people / fear of conflict)
- Ravi exaggerates an issue to promote the need for a project and trigger funding (seeking personal advancement / seeking to justify a bias towards the need for something)
- Susan doesn’t report a harassment incident because she thinks she’ll be punished indirectly if she does (culture of mistrust / fear of being excluded).
Here’s what can be done to minimise or close the ‘anti-team’ gaps:
- Emphasise team goals
- Promote open and respectful conversations to build shared understanding and empathy
- Reward team achievements instead of individual achievements.
- Hold people to account: if you see something happen like this, call it out. Be clear about what is ok and what is not ok. Lay out your expectations, both in terms of the outcomes you’d like to see and the values you’d like to see used to get there.
Start with clarity on where the gaps are with Team Reality Reporting
The Mirror Mirror Team Reality Reports identify and measure cognitive and behavioural alignment gaps between people in teams. They help surface the assumptions, misunderstandings and conflicting interpretations that cause frustration and undermine progress to get the issues on the table – objectively and constructively. We train expert practitioners how to work with teams using this data for increased engagement and effectiveness.