It is well known that many archetypal corporate communications are mistrusted, and disregarded.
We’re talking about the polished CEO message that has become neither meaningful nor sincere, from all of its edits through to release. The enthusiastically written multimedia newsletter that is almost immediately buried in the inbox of death. The well-intended Line Manager cascade process that inevitably succumbs to ‘chinese-whisper’ syndrome within hours. No wonder employee engagement continues to flounder despite the huge budgets that are consumed every year to ‘get it right’.
There are, of course, many employee approaches being used to avoid this quagmire, but it’s debatable as to whether they are setting the world ablaze either. The old stuff has to change faster, and the new stuff has to work better. So how about a reverse communication process instead?
The problem is misalignment
In complex working environments, it is commonplace for people to be working alongside each other while living in different realities. Misunderstandings, biases, assumptions, information gaps – these are some of the things that influence how people interpret what needs to be done at work. This is misalignment – we call it ‘the fog’ and it can add up to be hugely detrimental to engagement, collaboration, and performance. The more complex the working environment, the foggier it gets. Previously this stuff was invisible, inevitable, unimportant.
The research that links alignment to effectiveness
Having studied the literature on collaborative learning, and social and cognitive factors that drive teamwork, we found that teams (bringing together people with different experiences, values and knowledge) are more effective problem solvers than are individuals. However, effective collaboration (problem solving) is not merely a case of putting people with relevant knowledge together.
Team members face the challenge of integrating their different perspectives and developing shared cognition (a shared understanding) of the problem at hand. Doing this is driven by interpersonal and socio-cognitive processes and practices (behaviours). So, alignment is not just about content. Research in the social sciences tells us that learning behaviours drive alignment. In areas like psychological safety and interdependence, the more people feel safe to express themselves, and safe in that they can depend on their team mates, the more likely they are to open up and learn from each other. You can download our literature review here.
A new approach
People at work create their own sense of what is changing, how it will affect their team, and consequently what is needed to achieve results. They interpret words, cultural differences, even body language in different ways – often to support their existing world view, their biases and preferences. The problems start when the way people understand things don’t match up. For example, when people have different or missing information as the basis of their actions; when people have different interpretations of their goals; or they have different ideas about ways or working or collaboration. The process of aligning people to a shared meaning is deeply embedded in their shared context. It is two-way communication, the outcomes being effective action. In this sense, alignment is not about people thinking the same thing, or ‘winning’ a negotiation, it is about learning from each other, perhaps agreeing to disagree, but ultimately about aligning to a shared course of action. This article in the EACD’s Communications Director explains more about today’s definition of alignment.
The problem is that much misalignment is buried under the surface – people are not aware of where they need to align – which is exactly what Mirror Mirror was designed to help with. By asking people how they perceive their world at work and then comparing their responses, Mirror Mirror discovers where the common ground and differences are in a safe and constructive way. This surfaces the real communication needs so they can be addressed. It is reverse communication: the very opposite of deciding what you want people to know and sending out generic messages or stories to fit. It’s about delivering to an evidenced need for communications on what, why and how for more effective action.
Barriers to psychological safety can present on a number of levels in the workplace. Mirror Mirror is a refreshing way of getting people around some of those barriers, by allowing them to share their views anonymously, and address key issues without judgement or blame.