Creating Alignment with Others

I’ve described leadership as the art of identifying gaps between what is and what could be, and mobilizing others to address them. In the alignment series thus far, I have been addressing the identifying gaps part of leadership in identifying your own gaps for personal development, identifying an aspiration to orient your actions, and identifying the gap between current reality and that aspiration. This post is about the final part of leadership, mobilizing others to address those gaps aka creating alignment with others.

In many coaching conversations over the last few weeks, I keep coming back to a core set of actions to create alignment with others, which are:

  1. Set and communicate clear expectations.
  2. Secure commitments from others on how they will meet those expectations.
  3. Hold people accountable if they don’t fulfill their commitments.

Let’s address those in order.

Set and communicate clear expectations.

I often hear leaders complaining that their team is not delivering on their expectations, and frustrated that they as leaders “have” to do something they feel their team should be doing. And yet, when I ask them how they communicated to a specific person what that person “should” be doing, they often don’t have an answer.

It’s impossible to mobilize others to do something without telling them what they need to do. For instance, one CEO said “Where’s the critical thinking?” in expecting that his team would apply “common sense” to figuring out what was missing from a plan. When I asked him what he told people to do, he realized that he had inadvertently trained them to quickly execute on whatever plan he gave them. So he was frustrated that they weren’t doing something that had never been part of their job.

And you need to be specific in designating who should do something. Robert Cialdini has a great piece of advice in his book Influence, where he says that if you need medical attention on the street, you can’t just yell “Call 911” because everybody will expect somebody else to do it (aka the bystander effect). He recommends pointing at somebody and say “You! Call 911!”, so they realize it is their responsibility.

The same applies in other situations where you are mobilizing others. You can’t depend on them to know what to do, or who you expect to do it, unless you clearly communicate what you want (“You! Do this!”). Unspoken expectations create a mismatch between people since they will have different perspectives on what “should” happen. A good friend once gave me the relationship advice that “if your partner has to read your mind to do what you want, you’re doing it wrong!” The same holds in all other relationships. Clearly ask a specific person for what you want!

And leaders should also expect that saying something once, and expecting people to remember it, won’t work; they will need to overcommunicate their expectations for others to absorb them. Julie Zhuo says in her book The Making of a Manager: “Assume that for the message to stick, it should be heard ten different times and said in ten different ways.”

So that’s step one of creating alignment with others: if you are frustrated that something isn’t being done by others, ask yourself how you communicated your expectations to the person who you want to do it.

Secure commitments from others on how they will meet those expectations.

Sharing expectations with others isn’t enough to cause action, of course. They have to agree to those expectations and commit themselves to meeting them.

I had a phase of my career where I was constantly frustrated because executives weren’t listening to me. Even though I would send them emails with my brilliant ideas, the executives would make the exact opposite decisions from what I told them. And when the not-so-great outcomes I predicted came to pass, all I could say was “I told you so!”, which turned out not to be as satisfying or effective as I had hoped.

I’ve since learned that agreements have to be two way before you can expect anything to change. Just sending an email or even telling somebody in real-time what you want or expect isn’t enough; only when they make a meaningful commitment in response will there be the possibility of action.

In a recent podcast interview with Farnam Street, Cialdini explained how even the tiniest commitment can shift people’s actions by telling the story of how a restaurant reduced reservation no-shows:
“[The receptionist] would say, “Thank you for calling Gordon’s. Please call if you have to change or cancel your reservation.” He asked her to change two words, “Will you please call if you have to change or cancel your reservation?” And then he asked her to pause and have people fill that moment, and they all said, “Of course, sure, glad to.” And that was their commitment. And no shows dropped by 67% immediately and never went up because he had gotten them to make an active, public voluntary commitment to something and now they were going to live up to it to a greater degree.”

This is what Cialdini calls the principle of Commitment and Consistency. When people commit to do something, they are much more likely to follow through.

To lead through alignment, it’s not enough to make a clear ask of others outlining the expectations you have of them. That might “work” in a hierarchical power model, as even if they didn’t agree to your asks, you could force or browbeat them into doing what you want. However, such use of power would likely mean that you would not get their best work or their full commitment to that work, since they were not included in setting expectations for what they would do.

The alignment leadership model is about addressing others as whole people, and asking them to collaborate with you in building a future together. Rather than tell them what to do, we share the work that needs to be done (our expectations), and invite them to join us in doing that work. And they can decide what work they will choose to do; they might agree fully to our expectations, or they might negotiate on what they feel makes sense for them. But such inclusion in the alignment process will likely mean greater commitment and quality on the work itself, as they will feel fully involved in the process, and will have had a chance to communicate how they can best advance the work that needs to be done.

So step two of creating alignment with others is to get clear commitments from them on what they plan to do. If nothing is happening, ask yourself if anybody actually committed to doing what you wanted them to do.

Hold people accountable if they don’t fulfill their commitments.

Once you have set clear expectations and secured commitments, it’s much easier to have an accountability conversation with them, because they said “This is what I will do”, and then it didn’t get done. But such conversations are critical, because without this sort of follow through from the leader, commitments are meaningless. There must be consequences for not meeting commitments to have a culture of accountability where we do hard things together.

In a hierarchical power version of the conversation, the leader would accuse the employee of malingering, and tell them they had to “shape up or ship out”. This is the principle behind most Performance Improvement Plans (aka PIPs), where expectations are clearly set with a defined timeframe to achieve them, and the punishment for not meeting those expectations will be employment termination. Again, this will “work”, but a leader using this form of power will not get the whole commitment of their people, as they have made it clear they value only the output, not the person. Another version of this might be for the leader to swoop in and do things themselves because they don’t trust their people to execute, but that doesn’t grow the capabilities of their people or the organization.

An alignment version of the conversation might be more focused on curiosity and learning than on punishment. “What is getting in the way of you fulfilling your commitments?” or “What can I as the leader to do make it easier for you to follow through on what we talked about?” Alignment leaders start from a place of generosity, assuming that people are doing the best they can, and identify where gaps in commitment, competence or structure might be preventing them from meeting expectations.

One of the things I respected about Jerry Dischler, my VP at Google, was that he always held me accountable; I quickly learned that I couldn’t let something slide and hope he wouldn’t remember. He didn’t assume I was incompetent, but wanted to make sure there was nothing he could be doing to help me along, so I learned to proactively update him on initiatives where my progress was slower than expected. His accountability forced me to up my game, and I appreciated that push, as he made me a better Chief of Staff.

That illustrates step three of creating alignment with others: holding people accountable. If nothing is happening, ask the person who made the commitment in step two what is preventing them from fulfilling that commitment.

Summary

In most situations where a leader is not doing the work themselves, they must communicate clear expectations, secure commitments from others, and hold them accountable to their commitments in order for their leadership to scale. This three step process to create alignment with others has been resonating with a number of clients as we map it to their leadership challenges, and I am curious whether it resonates with readers out there based on my description above. Please comment or email if you have thoughts or refinements.

P.S. I’m sure this approach is not original, so references are welcome. I know the hierarchical vs. alignment model of leadership has similarities to Theory X and Theory Y in the management literature. And the use of language to secure commitments is inspired by the ontological branch of coaching developed by thinkers such as Fernando Flores, which I learned about in the book You Are What You Say. But I’m sure there are lots of other strands that this draws upon, so please share!

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