Aligning your team and organisation

Have you ever stopped to consider what ‘money’ really is? Is it pieces of shaped metal, ink on paper or, increasingly, a series of ones and zeros stored on wafers of silicon? Actually, money is better defined by what we understand it to mean to us. That makes more sense, but if that’s true then the single word money means lots of different things:-

  • To a business leader, it may mean the ultimate arbiter of organisational success.
  • To a beleaguered politician, it may mean a scarce resource to be fought for at budgeting time.
  • To someone living in poverty, it may mean a lifeline to a better life (or just survival)
  • To a religious fundamentalist, it may mean the source of all evil.

Whatever the context, the substance of money has little importance. The significance of money (and particularly, the way it causes us to act) is defined by the meaning that we each attribute to it.

It’s called Social Construction… Err what’s that?

Berger and Luckmann wrote a book in 1966 (reference below) which first described and explored how groups of people develop understandings about the world around them, how these understandings become ‘facts’ or ‘truths’ – and how they subsequently change how we act – and thus shape our own futures.

These understandings happen on a large scale: what is a recession beyond the belief in a lot of people’s minds that the future will be tough and they need to spend less? They can also happen on a small scale – like the words and expressions which have a special meaning with a partner or within a group of friends.

Some social constructionists argue that there is no absolute truth at all and that science – and even mathematics – are constructed socially, but I’ll leave investigation of these provocative ideas to your own curiosity and research!…

What’s this got to do with leadership – or alignment?

EVERYTHING! Every analysis, plan and strategy in organisations is socially constructed. You might think that you are discussing ‘facts’ but the choices you made of which data to examine, and the interpretations you make from it, are subjective.

What decides, therefore, which conclusions are ‘true’ is whether they are agreed by those whose support is needed to take action. If they are, then there’s a very good chance that action will follow. If not, then any action will be, at best, unaligned.

Every leadership team discussion, therefore, is aimed at getting its members to the point of agreement on how things are now, what is desired and how to get there. This may seem obvious but is surprisingly often overlooked.

Three common errors leaders make…

  • Agendas are so crowded that there’s no time to explore and negotiate different perspectives and reach true agreement.
  • A small group of people invest lots of time understanding an issue and/or creating a plan – but those who have to action it get only a ten minute discussion to reach the same conclusions.
  • A leader (or leadership team) makes a decision and then expects other people to act on it with the same degree of conviction – but others are given no opportunity to explore and understand the rationale that led to it.

And four ways to spot social construction at work…

Here are four types of statement to listen out for when working in groups on analysis or planning that signal when social construction is at work.

  • XXX is inevitable.
  • XXX doesn’t have to be this way
  • XXX is a bad thing
  • Things would be better if XXX could be changed

And five things to do when you see it…

When you come across any of the above statements, asking the following questions will greatly increase alignment – and, therefore, your speed and effectiveness in getting the results you are seeking:-

  • What alternative data or perspectives exist about this? (and how might they be useful?)
  • Does everyone, whose support we need in order to act, agree?
  • If they don’t, what’s needed to understand their disagreement and convince them otherwise?
  • How do we deal with and/or explain the apparently contradictory data or perspectives?
  • How will we create an opportunity for other key people to follow the ‘thought journey’ that we have travelled to reach this conclusion?

Want to learn more?

If you’d like to read more you could look at:-

Wikipedia, as ever, offers a good, and concise, summary .

Berger and Luckmann’s original book, ‘The social construction of reality’ is still in print. Publisher: Penguin  (1991)  ISBN-13: 978-0140135480

Kenneth Gergen has written more recently on the subject and how it applies to individual leaders in ‘The saturated self’ Basic books (1992) ISBN 978-0465071852. Gergen also discusses the wider implications of Social Constructionism in modern life in ‘An invitation to social Constructionism’ Sage (2009) ISBN – 978-1412923019.