3 Common Barriers to Executive Team Alignment

Most of us value harmony in the workplace. We spend one-third of our lives at work – one-third of our lives interacting with a group of people who, save the few who seem to thrive on workplace drama, want the work environment to be as pleasant as possible. This is rational. Harmony makes life easier, less stressful and altogether more enjoyable. But what often happens is we confuse team harmony and civility towards others with competence and team alignment, which is much more difficult to achieve. There are several reasons why team alignment tends to be elusive.

Conflict avoidance

First, we want to preserve harmony because it makes life easier and less stressful. Consequently, many of us go out of our way to avoid conflict – especially with our peers. We do not want to be seen as rocking the boat or publicly challenging a peer’s ideas or effectiveness. This conflict aversion can cause us to avoid addressing topics that, for the good of the business, we really should wrestle to the ground. Instead, we might gently hint at our concerns during meetings. Worse, we might choose to say nothing in the meeting but then complain to another team member after the session. However, when our peers discover that we are complaining about them, their trust in us deteriorates. Thus, preserving harmony by avoiding conflict tends to erode rather than build alignment.

Alignment at 10,000 feet

Second, most leaders like to have a significant level of autonomy in their work. For that reason, some of us choose to engage in only enough discussion or debate to achieve alignment at the conceptual or 10,000-foot level. Leaders align on macro priorities (e.g. driving sales of a particular product segment or expanding into an adjacent sales category) but do not invest the time to ensure detailed execution plans are created and aligned across all functions. Why? Because engaging in discussions about those “micro” issues opens the possibility that some of our ideas might be challenged.

Our peers may prefer tactics different to those we have chosen. We may need to compromise and that doesn’t feel exciting. So we opt to preserve our full autonomy in decision making by declaring “team alignment” at the big picture level and then driving tactics within our functional silos. We have even witnessed some cavalier leaders proudly declaring they believe it is more efficient for everyone if they act first and ask for forgiveness after the fact if others complain.

We recently worked with a senior leadership team who, at the beginning of our engagement, trumpeted a belief that they were all in lockstep alignment on their business strategy. However, when we interviewed the team members individually, we uncovered serious doubts, concerns and frustrations that team members had about each other. We observed this team in meetings and discovered that, while they exhibited a healthy amount of individual respect, they consistently chose not to engage in any significant level of conflict. Instead, sensitive issues were tabled for “offline” conversations. As a consequence, many issues were unnecessarily escalated to the CEO for a decision when team members should have been able to resolve issues themselves.

Team trust

Third, we forget about the stages of team development. We’ve all heard about Tuckman’s five stages of group/team development: forming, norming, storming, performing and adjourning. We know that new teams step through this process as they build trust with one another and that this naturally encourages alignment. However, we often forget that every time there is a change to the team’s members (e.g. a new member is added or someone transfers off the team and is replaced by a new hire or internal promotion) the team “trust meter” resets to zero and the process begins again. This process must be acknowledged and nurtured in order to quickly rebuild trust and once again return to the performing stage. Each new member to the team brings her or his unique thinking style to the team. The way a new team member may prefer to process information may be very different to the preferred style of existing team members. Sorting this out requires time and attention from each member of the team. Failure to address this need proactively delays or blocks the team’s ability to become truly aligned.

How should leaders address these barriers to alignment?

  1. Lean into debates. Consider them as “learning labs” rather than time wasters.
  2. Dig into the tactics. Push beyond conceptual alignment and talk about how each division and/or function is planning to execute each key initiative.
  3. Deploy a thinking styles assessment. Online assessment tools like the Hermann Brain Dominance Indicator (HBDI) create a common language for team members to use in exploring and integrating their individual thinking styles so that everyone’s needs are effectively met.

How aligned is your team? As a quick diagnostic, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are we attaining the business results that we planned? Bottom-line business performance that consistently falls short of expectations can be caused by misalignment of plans and priorities within the team.
  • Do people operate primarily within organizational silos? This issue typically manifests itself in the form of messy or incomplete handoffs between functions.
  • Do we frequently take important debates “offline” rather than dealing with them effectively as a full team?  When team members have relevant perspective to contribute are excluded from a debate, the communication feels closed or secretive. This can exacerbate trust issues.
  • Do you have very clear, functional action plans that have been reviewed and accepted by the full team? If a clear roadmap to execute the key initiatives has not been developed or if functional action plans are created without review and input from other functions, then handoffs between functions are likely to be messy.
  • Are middle and lower level levels empowered to execute? If many tactical decisions bubble up to the team leader for clarity and approval, it could be a sign that employees are unclear about the priorities or their decision rights.
  • Do decisions about execution take too long? If the strategy is clear, but many decisions related to execution require extended periods of debate, it may signal that the senior team’s alignment is only conceptual or that team members lack clarity on the barriers or challenges that exist in other functions.

If you answered yes to many of these questions, then it is likely that your team would benefit from some structured discussions to uncover the critical areas of misalignment. There are many tools that ArchPoint uses to resolve alignment challenges. OGSM, High-Performance Team Surveys, RACI, thinking styles assessments and conflict management training are a few that we deploy on a regular basis.

The purpose of all of these tools is to enhance the clarity and honesty of communication across the senior team in order to build trust, collaboration and as a consequence, real team alignment. Talk is cheap, but the right talk could be very valuable. As Tim Ferriss (a successful author and entrepreneur) once said, “Success could be measured in the number of uncomfortable conversations you’re willing to have.”