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Everyone Wanting the Same Thing: Creating Organisational Alignment in a Post-Covid World

Picture of people working on the leading for impact training


Creating goal alignment in an environment dominated by remote working is vital for an organisation to succeed. With workforces separated by geography, function, and other organisational barriers, how do leaders ensure that their businesses are pulling in the same direction? Effective communication of corporate objectives and strategies only goes so far, as the old, formal hierarchies are being rapidly eroded by the increased independence and autonomy of individuals and small team units.

The response of many leaders is to try to invoke the spirit of previously established corporate values as a means of promoting collaboration. Words such as integrity, openness, honesty, and fairness are often cited as the common values that hold a business together. In reality, these values are relative concepts that are highly susceptible to inconsistent interpretation by different people in an organisation.

For leaders and their businesses to succeed, it is vital that specific behaviours are established that are relevant and adapted to the new world. These behaviours need to supersede old ways that have quickly become ineffective, and which are increasingly the source of workplace conflict. Developing and embedding such new behaviours requires equally fresh leadership and facilitation approaches. This article will examine the challenges of creating and maintaining goal alignment in a blended working environment, and provide practical, real-life examples of effective techniques and how they have been successfully applied to improve business outcomes.

Key recommendations

  • Organisational values are transient, behaviours are real – one can create superficial
    alignment, the other makes things happen together
  • When we have a common language to describe what, how, and why, we can unify
    our effort – and if we create this language ourselves we take ownership of our shared
  • No leader knows what it’s like to work for an organisation in as much depth as those
    they lead – listen and you will hear the answers you have been looking for

Introductory statement

Organisational goal alignment has always been one of the most difficult challenges facing business leaders even before the additional complexities brought about by the necessity for blended working as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is widely accepted that “healthy tension” between business functions is essential to prevent an organisation being pulled out of shape. Leaders spend a great deal of their time managing such friction to reconcile differences of opinion and approach in order to achieve optimal results. As an example, this is often seen between the sales and delivery functions within a business. The prevalence of remote working has made it much more difficult for leaders to observe the emergence of “harmful tension” that, left unchecked, will lead to a lack of cohesion, goal misalignment, open conflict, and ultimately the failure to meet shareholder expectations. It has, therefore, become an urgent imperative for leaders to develop new methods and skills necessary to help their organisations cope with the structural changes in working practices that have taken place and which are almost certainly here to stay.

The Myth of a Successful Business Culture

“We are immensely proud of our culture”, said the CEO as she introduced her inaugural monthly global webinar for the hundreds of employees attending in fifteen countries on three different continents.

“Our success is founded on our common DNA and values of integrity, honesty, and fairness, and that’s why we are confident that we will not only survive the disruption to our business brought about by this pandemic, but we fully expect to thrive and enhance our competitive advantage”.

Not the actual words of any particular CEO, but the sentiment I heard expressed countless times by leaders of many businesses seeking to reassure their people, and themselves, that everything was going to be fine as the pandemic took hold and their workforces fled their offices for the safety of remote working.

The webinar ends after forty-five minutes, and the CEO immediately connects directly with the Chief People Officer (CPO). “I think that went quite well, don’t you? Hardly any questions on the chat, and although I couldn’t see anybody’s body language, I felt the message got across clearly. I feel really good that we’ve done this and I’m confident that we can keep everyone aligned if we do it once a month. Don’t you?”

The CPO isn’t sure that now is the time to break the news that he has already received three messages from regional managers who want clarity about the objectives and focusses for this quarter and who are deeply frustrated about the behaviour of the centralised sales function who don’t seem to appreciate that the business development approach has to be very different in their territories to that deployed in the UK.

Therein lies the problem with depending on culture, DNA, and values to get you through, even without a global pandemic getting in the way.

A single, common business culture is a myth, because diversity is vital for commercial success. A 2020 report by McKinsey (“Diversity wins: How inclusion Matters”) found that companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity outperformed those in the bottom quartile by 36%.

By definition, there has to be a wide variety of “cultures” prevalent in any successful organisation, and not just those that operate globally. These diverse cultures need space to co-exist and to be blended to create an environment in which people feel valued and encouraged to innovate to solve complex problems as they arise, with agility and the combined intellect and efforts of multi-disciplinary teams.

Evoking a company’s DNA to align people, is equally futile. The whole essence of DNA is that it never changes, but we all know that the ability to adapt, evolve, and sometimes to even metamorphosise is vital for survival, let alone to out-compete rivals.

And as for values……

Dr. Fons Trompenaars, a Dutch-French organisational theorist, management consultant, and author in the field of cross-cultural communication, who developed the 7 Dimensions of Culture model, uses his “Car Dilemma” to illustrate the problem:

If you were in a car being driven far too fast by your best friend and he collided with a cyclist in an accident, would you lie and tell the attending police officer that your friend was driving at the speed limit, or tell the truth about what caused the accident?

Whatever your answer, you may well invoke the value of “integrity” to justify your position. Helping your friend by lying or telling the truth to the police is a binary choice in this situation because integrity cannot be measured on a linear scale. Therefore, depending on your cultural perspective, integrity can mean two very different things and lead to very different behaviours.

Such is the dilemma in a business, and a leader cannot expect to achieve organisational alignment by asking people to follow abstract values that mean diametrically opposite things to people who appear superficially identical on the surface.

So with this degree of complexity and ambiguity, how does a leader align people behind common goals?

How could our CEO use her monthly webinars to orientate the organisation and help it align behind a common set of objectives and achieve high-performance results?

Achieving Goal Alignment and High Performance by Defining Common Behaviours

In this section, we will look at a tried and tested process for establishing organisation-wide engagement and commitment to a set of “Golden Behaviours” that are at the heart of all high-performing teams.

I have facilitated this exercise, and its subsequent roll-out, with the leadership of many businesses of varying scale and complexity. It is effective, straightforward, and often transformational in creating alignment between disparate teams, functions, or operating units.

Let’s return to our CEO and her alternative inaugural, Covid-inspired webinar.

“We are immensely proud of the diversity in our organisation and it’s that diversity that will enable us to respond to all the challenges we face. We recognise and trust your strengths, and as we prepare to work in different ways compared to the past, we would like you to help us shape the behaviours we need to succeed in the future.”

This is the start of a thirty-minute introduction by the CEO to an exercise to be coordinated by the people function, which will work as follows.

The CEO starts by setting-out the mission, vision, and core strategic priorities for the business. This needs to be done clearly and succinctly, as various research shows that as few as 14% of employees understand their company’s strategic direction – not a great start for effective goal alignment!

She goes on to explain that the HR Leads in each location will be running a series of short, cross-functional brainstorming sessions in the coming weeks by Zoom.

These sessions will be self-administered and led by volunteer facilitators from within the business who will be trained on effective, remote brainstorming techniques. Groups of up to twelve people will first be asked to generate lists of behaviours that they currently experience in the workplace.

This exercise is to help the leadership to derive an understanding of how employees actually experience working in the company, and what it is really like – warts and all.

Following this, in the same sessions, the groups will repeat the task, but this time the aim is to brainstorm the behaviours that will be needed within the organisation to deliver the mission, vision, and strategic objectives as set-out by the CEO.

Some of these behaviours may overlap with those that currently exist, but it is often very revealing, for both employees and leaders alike, how different the sets of behaviours turn out to be.

This very simple exercise will start a vital debate in the organisation about what needs to change, and most importantly, it places the onus on the employees themselves to identify behaviours that they, themselves, will need to display in order to play their part in a successful future.

What’s endlessly fascinating to me about the outcome of such sessions, is the simultaneous diversity of the current experience of employees working in a business, contrasted with the remarkable consistency that emerges about what’s actually required.

Back to the CEO’s webinar for a moment……

“The reason we want you to be involved in this way is because you know what it’s really like to work in this business. We believe that you know what needs to change for us to achieve our common objectives; and we need to hear it so that we can support you in achieving that change.”

This is a powerful, engaging message from the leader of the business and is driven by her understanding of the importance of engagement in driving business performance. She has recently read the research published by Gallup that states that less than 15% of employees globally are actually engaged in the workplace, and she is acutely aware that around 80% of employees might be considering leaving their jobs. She also knows that highly engaged workforces are 21% more profitable on average than those that score lowest on the same measure.
So, what will the leadership of the business do with the output of these brainstorming sessions?

The CEO goes on to explain that the lists of desired, future behaviours will be collated by the People Team, de-duplicated into the most commonly occurring, and clustered into five main themes that I like to refer to as the Golden Behaviours. All high-performing organisations are extremely accomplished in each of these areas, and constantly strive to improve in all of them:

  1. Communication
    The two-way process of conveying and receiving information, ideas, feelings, and actionable feedback
  2. Collaboration
    The combination of efforts, skills, and know-how to achieve a common purpose
  3. Self-Development
    The process of continually striving to improve and achieve one’s full potential
  4. Development of Others (and the team)
    The process of continually striving to help others and the team improve and achieve their full potential.
  5. Building and maintaining Relationships
    The ways in which people and teams positively regard and behave towards one another. Establishing effective relationships is complex and consists of four stages:
    – “Like”: either intuitively or by seeking things in common
    – “Respect”: allowing room for differences of opinion and style, and encouraging
    healthy challenge and disagreement
    – “Trust”: expecting (and empowering) people to do their best
    – “Sharing risk and reward”: being prepared to succeed and fail together

Once the behaviours from the brainstorming sessions have been clustered, these will be published on the company’s intranet as a precursor to the next stage of the process.

This will involve remote, facilitated discussion sessions of about one hour, again in small groups of up to twelve people.

This time, the groups will be tasked with discussing and producing two separate lists of highly specific “Do’s and Don’ts”, under the headings of the Golden Behaviours, guided by the lists of desired behaviours from the initial brainstorming sessions.

Our CEO is now in full flight……

“We want to know from you exactly how you would like people around you to behave in this business so that we all have an opportunity, individually and collectively, to achieve our full potential. We understand that every one of you has different personal aspirations and ambitions in your lives and we wholeheartedly respect those. At the same time, we have to find ways to pull together to achieve the common goals in our organisation”.

This is a really important part of the message, because it is spelling out the inherent truth that people are motivated not by logic, but by the laws of “Behavioural Economics”. As Jonathan Haidt, the American social psychologist, puts it: “We are emotional actors! We are highly intuitive beings who act first, and justify later. Our beliefs, convictions, and values are far less ‘rational’ than we imagine”.

He uses the analogy of the Elephant and the Mahout, where the latter is supposedly leading the former, but we all know that the elephant can and will go anywhere it likes when it likes.

In other words, employees do what they want to do, not what is logical or in line with the carefully devised strategy.

By tacitly acknowledging this truth, our CEO is inviting her colleagues on the journey, not telling them they have to go.

Once the lists of Do’s and Don’ts have been submitted to the People Team, they then repeat the exercise of de-duplication.

This again almost always produces a surprising level of convergence, and the organisation has now quickly and efficiently distilled a set of behavioural rules that can guide every individual’s conduct going forward.

There are a few more steps in the process before this foundational exercise is complete.

The lists of Do’s and Don’ts are now also published on the intranet, this time inviting everyone in the organisation to vote for their top five. This is a straightforward exercise that simply gives each person five votes to allocate to their favoured Do’s, and five to their favoured Don’ts.

Once this is done (usually allowing people up to two weeks to vote in order to give everyone a chance), the results are passed to the Executive Leadership Team for review.

“We will consider carefully what you tell us we need to change, and at my next webinar a month from now, I will present to you the behaviours that you tell us we need, and that we as leaders will commit to role modelling. I cannot guarantee that every behaviour that each of you considers important will be covered, but I can guarantee that the input of every single person in our organisation in every role and every location will have contributed to the final outcome”, says the CEO as she signs-off.

A month later, the company is presented with a set of Do’s and Don’ts that are to be incorporated into the existing continual evaluation process. Managers and their direct reports will be required to use their regular 1-to-1 meetings to discuss the extent to which these behaviours are being followed. Employees will be recognised when the right behaviours are demonstrated, and the periodic appraisal process will be built around the behaviours, which will carry more weight than performance.

As Gilbert Enoka, the legendary performance and mental skills coach of the New Zealand All Blacks put it (in slightly more vivid language), “You can’t be a positive influence on the team and act like an idiot off it. It’s not just about talent. You can have all the strategies in the world, but in the end, what will enable you to overachieve – or underachieve – are your behaviours”.

The People Team ensures that the company’s mission, vision, strategy, and (above all) the agreed behavioural Do’s and Don’ts are kept front of mind through a series of repeated, mixed media initiatives. These range from physical collateral such as posters and desk mats, to prominent messages on the intranet, and regular senior leadership re-enforcement.

It is also worth noting that the above process can be equally effective in small to medium-sized companies, where (Covid permitting) the whole thing can be conducted face-to-face.

A Final Word from our CEO

“We live in a fast-paced, constantly-changing world. Therefore, our goals will change almost constantly. We may have to re-invent our products and services, our operational practices, policies and processes, but what will never change is our commitment to every one of you to respect your diversity and help you reach your full potential. In that regard, your goals are inextricably aligned with those of the company, and the route to success lies in our common agreement to uphold the Golden Behaviours and follow the Do’s and Don’ts that you devised and that will always lead to high performance!”

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