Barriers to Change: Misalignment

If you can’t get your most experienced leaders aligned on a change, what hope does the rest of the organization have?

One of the most straight-forward barriers to change can also be the most intractable: senior leaders disagreeing about what or how things need to change. It’s even more frustrating when leaders claim to be aligned: at meetings, they all enthusiastically support a proposed goal, or promise to commit to a new approach. But when it comes to execution, results are all over the map: some leaders don’t do anything, and some implement projects that seem to work directly against the original goal. And if you can’t get your most experienced leaders aligned on a change, what hope does the rest of the organization have?

If you can’t get your most experienced leaders aligned on a change, what hope does the rest of the organization have?

Leaders can find themselves misaligned because:

  • They believe proposed changes are inconsistent with company values or objectives.
  • They have different interpretations of how strategic plans must translate into action
  • They don’t even know what the strategy is. One study found that only 28% of managers could correctly list three of their company’s top strategic priorities.
  • They have their own agenda or are promoting their own interests.
  • They don’t want to have difficult conversations needed for change.
  • Decision-making rights are unclear, which means that it defaults to consensus/horse-trading, which waters down any potential decision.

Note that some, but not all, of these reasons are conscious: a leader may not realize that they are sabotaging change or going in a different direction than the rest of the organization, so it’s important to avoid blame or finger-pointing when trying to remedy this. Instead, try to see the bigger picture and ensure you are all operating on an even playing field.

To get your leaders on the same page:

  • Build psychological safety so you can have discussions when people disagree. You may get sick of hearing it, but the key to a healthy leadership team is trust. Spend time intentionally and directly building familiarity and comfort with each other. Get more comfortable with disagreement. Once leaders can disagree in a healthy manner, they are more likely to call out when something isn’t feeling aligned.
  • Establish a common language. Make sure everyone’s defining terms and objectives the same way (including key elements of your strategy). Identify key words that are causing confusion or spin, and come up with examples and better definitions—or even different terms altogether.
  • Clarify decision-making rights. Take some time to interrogate how you as a leadership team make decisions. Are you allowing for proper debate? Do you get a sense that folks are bought in, or are they just nodding along? Explicitly deciding how you make decisions will lead to more alignment and commitment. Then, once a decision has been made, adopt the Jeff Bezos philosophy of “disagree and commit.” It’s better to make a decision and find out how it impacts the organization than freeze through indecision.
  • Keep each other accountable. Once you commit to a decision, look into how you are keeping each other accountable for that commitment: it’s meaningless to commit if there’s no consequences. Create regular checkpoints for revisiting progress, and use the trust you have built to have open conversations together about where things are working and where things aren’t. 
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Barriers to Change: Misalignment
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