Creating a well-aligned team does more than just make people feel rewarded and proud; it also allows people to use their own strengths and ideas, and drives efficiency and effectiveness throughout their work.
Ok, first things first: what is a well-aligned team?
At the most basic level, a well-aligned team is a team where everyone understands what everyone else is doing and why. A more advanced well-aligned team is able to connect what they are doing to the broader organization and why it matters. Finally, a truly well-aligned team is made up of people who can connect their work to their own sense of values and purpose. You need the first two to achieve the third, but once you have it, you know you’re aligned.
Too often, the examples you hear about creating team alignment center around inspiring tales of life-saving missions or teams of people saving the world in real ways. But the research shows that you don’t have to be a brain surgeon or a Navy Seal to lead a well-aligned team, you just need to be passionate about your work. Regardless of what that work is, as long as your team can connect the dots from their work to what they care about and value, you’ll have alignment.
Team alignment - Level One: Everyone understands what everyone else is doing and why
We’re most engaged in our work when we believe that our team cares about us and we care about them back. Of course, doing interesting work in an effective and efficient way and taking pride in that work can contribute to creating team alignment, but don’t stop there. Because once everyone on the team understands what everyone else is doing and why, you’ll have a well-oiled machine operating in an engaging, inspiring environment.
Part of this is because most people (aside from true narcissists) feel intrinsic rewards by doing good deeds. In other words, when we seize the opportunity to do something for someone else, without expecting something in return, our brains are hard-wired to feel good. When it comes to creating an aligned, collaborative team, knowing about this “hardwiring” can be very helpful. But remember that it only happens if everyone on the team is empowered to help one another out. And this requires that each team member understands 1) what everyone else is doing, and 2) why they’re doing it and/or how it ties back to team/organizational objectives. Under these conditions, team members have context for each others’ needs, so they have the chance to help each other out where possible.
So, how does this happen? Primarily through dedicated time and attention. This means caring out specific time for your team to share what they’re doing and communicate with each other about it. Daily stand-ups or weekly check-ins are great for this. Even if you’re not running an Agile team, there’s a lot of value in conducting team retros and demos. Provide opportunities for your team to share what they are working on, what they’re proud of, and where they might need support.
This might sound like a no-brainer, but it’s surprisingly easy to become misaligned based on assumptions. At Lead Belay, we’ve run an activity a few times where we put out a topic and ask people to identify as many words or phrases as possible around that topic in 90 seconds. Then, we put them together in small groups, ask them to share their lists with each other and find how many they had in common. In a room of 40 people, with ten small groups, it’s rare for even one group to have a few words in common. Fact is, no one sees everything the same way, and it takes a concerted effort for a team to “speak the same language.”
Team alignment - Level Two: Connection to the broader organization
How your team and their work connect to the broader organization is the responsibility of the team leader. To the extent that any team members work with other teams, there may, and should, be some sharing back and forth. But mainly, as the team leader with the most visibility and access to stakeholders and leaders, it’s up to you to show your team the impact their work is having and how they are helping the entire organization.
It’s important to balance this with protecting your team as well. You don’t want to disrupt your team or knock them off balance, so choosing what and what not to share takes careful judgment. It’s up to you to provide the vision and sense of direction about where your team’s work is having an impact.
Team alignment - Level Three: Connected to personal values and purpose
In order to achieve the third level of alignment, you have to start with the first two. Then, it’s time for one-on-one conversations. You should be having these at least once a month with every member of your team, and is a great place to ask about their values, dreams, and goals and how—or if—they align with the work they're doing.
It’s an opportunity for you as a leader to look for mis- or dis-connection. This isn’t the time to rebut or argue; it’s the time to guide your team members to a deeper sense of connection and encourage them to think about where they want to go next. You should be empowering and supporting your team member in these meetings, with both of you working towards the goal of achieving this high level of alignment.
Creating a well-aligned team does more than just make people feel rewarded and proud; it also allows people to use their own strengths and ideas, and drives efficiency and effectiveness throughout their work. When you have a well-aligned team, you also have a creative and engaged team where the sky’s the limit.