Using the well-known sports analogy, why is it that that the 15 best players (or however many) on the field are often not the best 15? On paper they are the best yet, for some reason, they do not perform on the field. Andrew Sonnenberg analyses the phenomenon.
The answer, amongst other things, is ALIGNMENT – as 15 players each playing for themselves can never achieve the ultimate team objective. Khadem (2008, p. 29) defines a state of alignment as one where “…where everyone understands the strategy, buys into it, knows how to make a real contribution, and strives to make a contribution to its realization”. He notes that alignment encompasses vision, values and strategy. Forbes Coaches Council (2016) list 13 characteristics of a high-performing team, with alignment being amongst the most important. They note that when team members are aligned around a shared vision and set of values the team grows “…from the inside out” (2016, p.1). ‘Inside-out’ growth or development is a fundamental principle of both individual and team development inferring that performance breakthroughs come from the inside.
‘Inside-out’ growth or development is a fundamental principle of both individual and team development inferring that performance breakthroughs come from the inside.
Executive coach and advisor to CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies, Brian Gast (2016), states that given the choice between a poorly aligned team comprised of highly talented individuals and a team of mediocre talent who were aligned on vision, values and priorities, he would choose the latter. Based on his experience, aligned teams operate with more energy, accountability and creativity, displaying less drama.
Kleweno (2017) indicates that a feeling of exclusion is common among leadership teams. Moreover, team members who feel excluded tend to lose interest and motivation and can become antagonistic. Inclusion is based on mutual respect and trust and is fostered through empowering leadership practices. An outdated command-and-control leadership style followed by many leaders creates fear, stifling creativity, blurring focus and driving misalignment. Fear creates inertia and stifles creativity adversely impacting on individual and team performance. Having created an inclusive environment where team members are clear on deliverables, the leader needs to get out of the way and allow the team to deliver (Behfar, Friedman & Oh, 2016; Kleweno, 2017).
Edmondson (1999) refers to such an environment as one where psychological safety exists. She defines psychological safety as “…a shared belief that the team is safe from interpersonal risk taking… a confidence which stems from mutual respect and trust among team member” (1999, p. 354). Thus, team members feel free to be themselves without fear of any unwanted consequences. Team leader coaching can have an important influence on team psychological safety. Leaders prone to autocratic, controlling behaviour can be coached to be more supportive and coaching-oriented fostering psychological safety, positively contributing to team alignment, team learning behaviour and team performance.
Leaders prone to autocratic, controlling behaviour can be coached to be more supportive and coaching-oriented fostering psychological safety, positively contributing to team alignment, team learning behaviour and team performance.
Zaccaro, Rittman and Marks (2001) believe that team motivation stems from a combination of team task cohesion, or alignment around a common goal, and collective efficacy, or the belief of the team members in their team’s ability to complete the task to the required standard. According to Bennis and Biederman (1997), all great teams are driven by a profound sense of purpose. They are on a Devine mission from God, aligned by this higher calling. In addition, leaders of great teams are extremely focused, optimistic yet realistic, exercise great judgement in choosing the right person for the right job, are not afraid to lead highly talented people and shield their teams from each other and unnecessary bureaucracy. Highly effective leaders are also not afraid to share leadership responsibilities with their teams. They understand that empowering leadership creates an environment conducive to employee commitment and alignment, enhancing levels of employee engagement, necessary for unleashing discretionary effort (Albrecht and Andreetta, 2011).
According to Zwilling (2017), several leadership habits unconsciously contribute toward misalignment and demotivation of a team. These include, doling out bits and pieces as opposed to sharing the big picture, focusing on the “how” as opposed to the “why”, discouraging questions as a waste of time, assigning projects or tasks and then disappearing, hiring people perceived to be less capable than themselves, communicating indirectly and assuming people understand and sharing mostly bad new or negative feedback. The role of the formal leader is key to achieving and sustaining high levels of engagement, team motivation and alignment (Barrick, Thurgood, Troy & Courtright, 2015; Bass & Avolio, 1990; Carasco-Saul). Creating alignment is one of the most critical leadership roles (MacMillan, 2001).
Kheirandish (2014) notes that alignment enhances performance and decreases costs. Employees know what is expected to them and strive to meet and exceed expectations. In addition, team members of aligned teams are less likely to suspect hidden agendas in task-related discussions, less prone to harsh behaviours and are less likely to escalate task-related conflicts into relationship conflicts (Schaeffner et al., 2015). Research thus suggests that team alignment presents numerous benefits to team members, team leaders and the organisation, while misaligned teams tend to be emotionally and financially costly. Having worked in and with many aligned and misaligned teams over the years, I can personally attest to this.
Highly effective leaders are also not afraid to share leadership responsibilities with their teams. They understand that empowering leadership creates an environment conducive to employee commitment and alignment.
- Andrew Sonnenberg is an HR consultant, an associate at Yellowtreehub and former Head of HR: Retail Operations at Woolworths in South Africa. Andrew@yth.co.za
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