Why “Alignment” Among Staff Is Overrated

Getting everybody on the same page has its virtues. But acknowledging a diversity of attitudes, especially during a pandemic, can be more valuable and productive.

The past year has put us on common ground. We share a similar concern about the pandemic. Many workers have the feeling that we’re spending half our work lives on Zoom. Given the shared experience, and a leader’s instinct to improve their staff’s mood during a difficult time, people in charge might be inclined to infuse their staffs with a common spirit. Doesn’t your association work best when everybody is rallied around the agreed-on mission?

Not necessarily. In “How Leaders Can Optimize Teams’ Emotional Landscapes,” an article for the MIT Sloan Management Review, three University of Michigan scholars suggest that a common purpose can be a good thing. But that’s a difficult and inadvisable thing to impose, they add, and organizations are often better off embracing the emotional diversity of their staff.

More complex and diverse emotional experiences actually evoke a broader array of ways to think about a problem.

That last fact can be hard to swallow, they write, because leaders are often inclined to cultivate uniformity in their teams. They either want to get people feeling a shared kind of positivity (cue the pep talk) or create a collective feeling of urgency (cue the burning platform). Those tactics aren’t bad in themselves, they explain: “When a team shares a common mood, members are better able to converge on a single point of view and take the actions required to execute a given strategy.”

But uniformity isn’t necessarily your goal. If you don’t yet have a strategy, and you’re trying to brainstorm ideas, “more complex and diverse emotional experiences actually evoke a broader array of ways to think about a problem.” Similar thinking patterns, they point out, can reinforce biases.

The trick for leaders, the scholars write, is understanding staff’s emotions in the context of the particular “job to be done” within the organization. They’ve designed a matrix of responses depending on whether your goal is to innovate or execute and whether staff emotions are diverse or in alignment. Sometimes you might look to highlight the range of attitudes that staff (or, say, a board) brings to an issue; sometimes you’ll cultivate alignment. “The extremely emotional and dynamic events of 2020 are finally forcing leaders to do this difficult work,” they write.

Well, maybe. Much as I appreciate the notion that teams aren’t cut from the same emotional cloth, I get a little twitchy at the idea of leading so programmatically when it comes to people’s feelings. Perhaps a better place to start is to double-check that you know where your people are emotionally in the first place. And if there’s a silver lining in 2020 when it comes to management, we’re doing a better job at prioritizing that.

In a recent article at Quartz, Sarah Todd reports on how the past year has helped “usher in a broader understanding of professionalism that makes room for workers’ complicated lives and psychological realities.” As employees have become more candid at the office about caregiving stresses, racial bias, and the isolation of remote work, she writes, better employers have responded by providing more support for mental wellness and reassessing what productivity and success look like in a new environment.

There are limits to this new openness: As one executive coach tells Todd, “Colleagues aren’t therapists and work is not a support group.” In the same way, a leader shouldn’t manipulate staff’s emotions to get a job done. But a little more candor in the office, if you can cultivate it as a leader, can accomplish two useful things. It can create a sense of inclusion among staff at a difficult time. And it can give you a better sense of what your people are feeling, so you can set realistic goals around the jobs that need doing.

(Angelo/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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