Let’s start with these facts:

  • Townhalls, where well-intentioned leaders babble and pontificate, are a lousy way to create organizational alignment.
  • Email blasts with announcements or directions are as effective as throwing a paper airplane in a hurricane.
  • Most internal social/communications platforms installed to create sharing and community building simply aren’t being adopted by employees. (I feel your pain: “If they’d just use it!”)
  • Starting meetings by repeating the organization’s strategies or priorities is like playing the Eagle’s “Hotel California” on the radio: Your audience tunes out old songs (and most no longer listen to the radio, anyway).

There is ample proof that the above techniques aren’t effective at creating alignment deep within the organization. According to research by Sull, Homkes and Sull (40 experiments to test execution, plus a survey of 8,000 managers in 250 companies), the facts are loud:

  • When middle managers are given five chances to list their company’s strategic objectives, nearly half fail to get even one right.
  • It’s not much better at the top: Half of those in the C-suite can’t connect the dots between strategic priorities.
  • Which means this isn’t a surprise: 16% of frontline supervisors and team leaders can clearly understand the relationship between corporate priorities.

Alignment Requires a Shared Reality

We’ve supported successful leaders to create deeper alignment in their organizations in over 32 countries and 27 different industries. That data is important because the steps outlined below seem to work everywhere (smashing the myth that employees are at fault or “my team just doesn’t understand”).

For starters, alignment is demonstrated when colleagues make the mutual decision to focus their energies in executing shared strategies and priorities. That decision, however, can’t be made if colleagues are operating with different realities.

Fundamentally, reality is how any human defines what is true. When two or more people have a shared reality, they share a mutual definition of what is true.

Importantly: Information provided by one person to another rarely dents the reality of the receiver. There are many reasons for this, including these facts: Incoming information is filtered through biases, beliefs, and the rigid norms of friends who are also hearing the information (translation: if you choose to believe what you just heard, you’ll be outcast).

How to Create Mutual Meaning Among Colleagues

Leaders who are successful at creating deep alignment don’t talk very much. They share information and then ask questions like these to create mutual meaning among colleagues:

  • How do you feel about the information I just shared? (Reminder: Emotions determine how people behave.)
  • What does this information mean in relationship to our objectives?
  • How would you explain our priorities to others?
  • What is the relationship between what we’ve been discussing and our strategies?

Establishing a shared reality is the accelerant to enabling colleagues to make decisions collaboratively and quickly – and operate with deeper alignment.

What questions are you going to ask in your next meeting?

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