Most things that we do are done to reduce uncertainty. The source of most of our uncertainty is other people. We can’t read their minds. We can’t know what they will do or what they will say before they do or say it.
we feel safest around people who agree with us
When it comes to people we work with, we feel safest around people who, generally, agree with us. We try to understand if they agree with us by establishing a relationship and having conversations. If we are able to convince ourselves that they agree with us, our uncertainty about them is reduced and we begin to trust them to do things in a way that is aligned with our objectives. It only takes a second for people to say, “I agree with you,” or “yes, you’re right,” and if we believe them, we feel good.
To agree means to be amenable, consenting or compliant. This way of creating trust is far too common, and it’s fundamentally flawed and terribly risky. It’s leadership through agreement. I prefer leadership through alignment. But why is agreement the wrong approach to leadership? It’s the wrong approach because, in the workplace, modern humans still rely on an ancient survival instinct: immediately reducing uncertainty.
survival instincts often lead us astray
While walking through the forest, if our ancient ancestors encountered another person the first question was, are you a friend or a foe? Foe meant kill or be killed. Friend meant no one gets killed or injured. We do the same thing in the workplace: who is like me and who holds opposing opinions, who is my friend and who is my enemy? In today’s workplace, however, our ancient survival instincts often lead us astray. Understanding who is a friend or enemy at work only tells us who will leave us alone or who will conspire against us. It doesn’t tell us who will successfully achieve the objectives we set for them.
understanding is the first criteria for alignment
Your staff can’t know what to do in the present, unless they understand the objectives they’re striving to achieve in the future. Understanding takes dialogue. We need to keep talking and listening if we are to understand each other. When the dialogue stops, people immediately fill in the gaps in order to reduce uncertainty. We can’t see how each person fills in these gaps. When things go wrong, it’s probably because a gap was filled with a belief that was not aligned with the objective you needed accomplished. As soon as you start to fill in a gap, restart the conversation and encourage others to do the same. Trying to leave nothing unspoken is a sure path toward understanding. Understanding is the first criteria for alignment. You need to do all that you can to create understanding.
commitment is the second criteria for alignment
Understanding does not mean agreement. We understand many things that we don’t agree with. Outside of work, most people have the freedom to commit to only those things that they agree with. In the workplace, however, people can disagree and discuss alternatives, but in the end, they need to commit to the direction set by their leaders.
To commit means to bind oneself to a certain course of action. Commitment is active. Commitment means doing something. Commitment is the second criteria for alignment. If your staff is to achieve the objectives you set for them, it’s critically important that they are committed to achieving those objectives. Yes, it’s comforting when they agree, but agreement without active commitment is just talk without action. Your staff’s commitment, in spite of their respectful and professional disagreement, is a testament to your leadership.
the straightest line to your objectives
If we redirected our efforts away from trying to determine who agrees with us or who is more like us, and toward creating alignment through understanding and commitment, a lot more would get done. Alignment provides the straightest line to your objectives.