When making an important decision, do you strive for consensus or alignment within your team? You may be wondering, “What’s the difference?” Fair question.
If you’re a consensus-driven decision-maker, you want to ensure everyone agrees with the decision. But there are two key problems with this approach. First, usually not everyone agrees, and attempting to generate consensus can slow your team’s execution to a grinding halt. Second, consensus-driven leaders often tend to surround themselves with like-minded people in order to more easily achieve consensus, which opens them up to blind spots. These two pitfalls stymie organizations all too often.
On the other hand, if you’re an alignment-driven leader, you embrace diverse perspectives in order to help you make the most informed decision possible, even if not everyone on your team agrees. But the “problem” with this approach is that different opinions inherently create conflict, which can be uncomfortable for some. The purpose of this article is to provide some food for thought on how embracing healthy conflict, as uncomfortable as this may be, can positively sharpen your decision-making and generate alignment on your team.
First, what is alignment? I define it as a mutual commitment toward a common goal, although people are approaching the goal from different perspectives. This definition has three important implications.
First, cultural and cognitive diversity on your team is a force multiplier. Diverse perspectives are the foundation for productive debate, which creates sharper solutions.
Second, there has to be a common goal. Leaders need to create a vision that everyone can aim toward, even though they may have different perspectives on how to get there.
Third, the art of leadership includes the ability to facilitate open discussion in a psychologically safe environment that generates mutual commitment from team members toward the common goal. This means ensuring that everyone’s perspective is both heard and valued, while skillfully influencing the various viewpoints toward the common goal. At the same time, team members must keep an open mind and recognize that the leader is ultimately responsible for the team’s progress and results.
Still, disagreements among your team members will persist, and eventually a decision will need to be made. So how do you get your team aligned and make a decision without alienating those who disagree? Great question. I’ve found three techniques helpful: leverage the art and science of influence, decouple ideas from the people who thought of them, and express genuine appreciation for everyone’s input.
Leverage the Art and Science of Influence
In my previous blog, I discussed how the Influence Pyramid can help you leverage the art and science of influence to persuade and align others toward an objective. In a nutshell, here are five principles you can apply to generate trust-centered alignment on your team:
Decouple Ideas from the People Who Thought of Them
When brainstorming and debating various aspects of your decision, it can be helpful to decouple ideas from the people who thought of them in order to help mitigate natural bias toward one’s own perspectives. An effective way to do this is to ensure all of your team members know that their voice is important, and then capture ideas on a whiteboard or in a document where everyone can see them. Once the brain dump is complete, ask everyone to take the “who” out of it and forget about which ideas are theirs. At this point, shift the focus to assessing all of the ideas objectively as a group. And if you happen to have a team member who is still fixated on their own idea, it’s often useful to ask them to play devil’s advocate to help expand the team’s thinking.
Express Genuine Appreciation for Everyone’s Input
Even if you’re the world’s most influential leader and you’ve masterfully applied the first two techniques, invariably there will be at least one member of your team who may not be fully on board with the direction you’re leaning. In this case, genuinely express to your team how much you value their input. Explain that their diversity of perspectives is what enabled you to arrive at what you believe is the sharpest solution and best decision for the team given the timeline you’re operating under. Describe why you chose this particular solution for your decision. Then humbly acknowledge that you know some of them don’t agree, but that you would appreciate their support. Even when people disagree with your decision, they can usually align with it if they feel valued, respected, and appreciated throughout the process.
Although striving for consensus might be a more comfortable way to make decisions, it often leads to sub-optimal results due to blind spots and never-ending discussions that can erode your competitive advantage. Instead, consider the power of alignment to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of your decision-making.
To dive deeper on the subject of generating alignment, check out The Substance of Leadership: A Practical Framework for Effectively Leading a High-Performing Team. Also, take the five-minute Performance Pressure Test for more insight into how well you’re performing as a leader.