A Memo by Allen Hacker
Copyright © 1989-96 by ASC/ Articulate Management, ntc.
Misalignment is the more common of the two major causes of strife within an organization. The other cause, relatively rare and not discussed in this article, is the pre-emptively defensive personality.
Misalignment occurs when two or more entities try to mesh deceptively similar but essentially different visions into a cooperative venture without clarifying the subtle differences. With their subtle differences left unnoticed, the "overlaid" visions mask each other and compete within the minds of their originators without anyone realizing it.
Each entity then proceeds as though its vision is the same as everyone else's. Inevitably, one of them will take a position or an action based on its private version and then find itself apparently the only sane person on the team as the other entity(ies) suddenly act like the action or position makes no sense.
The error that permits misalignment is mutual, and therefore no one is more right or wrong than anyone else when it happens. Misalignment can only occur when all of the involved entities permit vagueness, neglect "trivial" and/or unspoken concessions as to the details of the vision(s), and proceed from assumptions.
This is not to say that everyone's vision must be exactly the same. What is important is that the differences be known. When the differences are known, supporters will know when they need to set aside their own preferences on a particular point in favor of that detail of leadership's vision.
This perspective assumes that leadership exists in the form of some kind of final arbiter in the group: a leader, a superior-subordinate relationship, the spokesperson for a negotiated vision that was democratically developed, and so on.
The consequences of misalignment are a mutually distasteful but recurring push-pull on seemingly trivial issues, a vague but pervasive sense of vexation, and an accumulating appraisal by each entity that the other is unreasonably obstinate. Those suffering from this often say something like, "How can we be disagreeing so much, when we agree on so much?"!
The structure of a group often determines how misalignment manifests. Democratic groups and partnerships that seek to equalize authority usually suffer continuous renegotiation, factionalism and chronic paralysis. Libertarian and anarchist groups, which seek personally responsible independence, suffer the chaos of willfulness, individuation and disintegration. Republican and other hierarchical groups that rely on rank and obedience suffer from power plays, internal politics and turnover.
A misalliance (of whatever type) that is allowed to continue uncorrected should be expected to perform minimally, to generate high levels of stress for everyone involved, to sometimes escalate into openly adversarial situations, to seriously damage the peripheral relationships of everyone involved, and to unfavorably taint each of the original visions with frustration and a sense of failure.
It is true that pursuing a goal, which often involves confronting a lot of barriers, can stir up a person's "stuff" (mental/emotional baggage). It is also true that a great deal of friction can stem from unhandled "stuff". And it is also true that when a "stuff"-contaminated situation exists and is left unhandled, disaster is probable. Obviously, where "stuff" is causing the problem, it must be handled. However, while this logic is sound where it does apply, it does not apply where misalignment exists.
Misalignment is senior in importance to "stuff", and handling it often removes the "stuff" as well, because usually most of the "stuff" is actually pursuant to upsets flowing from the clash of subtle differences hidden in the misalignment.
Addressing upsets when misalignment is present neglects the fact that most of the upsets stem from the misalignment. Further, addressing the upsets directly is not likely to lead to a resolution of their underlying cause when the cause is misalignment. The exception is when misalignment is looked for as a probable cause. The signal for which one looks is whether the upsets continue.
When people don't know about misalignment, the closest most of them ever get to exposing it is the identification of specific fundamental disagreements without seeing the implications. This is an ironic case of "close, but so far away", because when you know about it, such disagreements are obvious indications of misalignment.
Misalignment can refocus a group's purpose toward the unnoticed agendas of its controlling factions. For example, there are two basic types of people who become interested in humanitarian organizations. There are those who want to serve directly, perhaps as counselors, trainers and other kinds of front-line activists. Then there are those whose aptitudes point them more toward support and administrative roles.
The problem of polarization occurs when the preferred mode of operation of each faction is inconsistent with the other. As discussed, the misalignment remains unnoticed, but the behaviors reflect the subtle differences.
In this example, the front-line people will usually defer all management duties to the other sub-group. But later on, when the management style of the organization settles toward control and enforcement of policy, coupled with an inadvertent insensitivity to the public being served, some degree of civil war erupts as the front-line people find their functions increasingly restricted by what they consider unjustifiable bureaucracy and oppressive police actions.
In most cases of this type, once things reach the point of antagonism between the key divisions of the group, it is too late. The controllers are in power and the servers have no tools for change and little access to public opinion. They lose by default, having long since unwittingly given away the positions of administrative power.
Misaligned entities are often reluctant to dissolve the arrangement. There are perceived or desired benefits that often motivate one or more of them to continue the "trade-off". Sometimes the benefit/cost ratio is large enough to seem to justify continuing, and only when the cost factor obviously exceeds the benefits will such people finally give up the ghost and move on. Sometimes it's just an assertiveness issue that requires them to continue to "throw good money after bad" in the desperate hope that it will all somehow work out or that they will eventually be vindicated or able to "fix" each other.
Misalignment always costs more than it gives. But that is only an obvious fact to those who have finally come to understand the value (impact) of the stress, restrained growth and other intangibles involved. Those who look only at the tangible, semi-tangible, and immediate financial aspects of the "trade-off" usually never see what they are losing. Incredibly, one of those unexamined items is the astounding cost of staff turnover.
There are important benefits to handling misalignment, even when it means the dissolution of a heavily vested cooperative venture.
The benefit that usually surprises everyone is that in most cases each of the spun-off restarts does better than everyone else expected.
For example, Joe and Jim realize that their "negligible" irreconcilable differences really are important, and they split up. Each is certain that the other can't make it without him, or that the other just can't make it. The less they know about misalignment and the more adversarial their recent relationship, the more they will believe this. Later, when each finds that both are doing better than before the split, they are surprised.
The reason misalignment's spun-off restarts usually do better is that each is now free of all of the counter-intention and counteraction under which the previous cooperative venture had been laboring. Freed of all that excess baggage, they should do better!
The greatest benefit to terminating misalignment (by either approach) is the recovery of integrity that goes with the cessation of concession and mutual subtle abuse. Each disentangled entity is no longer an accidental pretender and is free to recover and declare its own true vision and pursue it without arbitrary restraints.
Being yourself to the maximum possible in the moment and pursuing your own vision are definitely among the greatest of pleasures. Freeing yourself of entangling alliances of the misalignment kind is a big step in that direction. Because alignment is so important to us, we must be certain that we do not lose our quest for it in denial when it is flawed or absent.
The resolution of misalignment is achieved primarily in either of two ways. The first step in both is to identify the fundamentals-level subtle disagreements. After that, a new agreement, approach and commitment to creating true alignment must be developed and implemented.
When identification and agreement are not an option, the flawed alliance must be suspended or terminated.
A word of caution: people who don't understand misalignment often compound the situation by 'agreeing to disagree' at the upsets level and then trying to carry on as though it doesn't matter, never clarifying the fundamental disagreements. But to do that is to perpetuate an unresolved counter-productive situation.
Obviously, real alignment goes beyond the usual simple agreement on immediate purpose that most people settle for. I hire you and agree to pay you; you come on board and agree to perform to my expectations. But what if I'm a letch and you don't want to dress to gratify my illicit eye? What if I make parts for bombers and you are a peacenik? What if my operating platform is benevolent commerce and yours is mercenarial mercantilism?
How can we accommodate the breadth of opportunity for misalignment? One way is to list our alignment factors and then live in terms of them. The list should be as detailed as reality allows.
The Alignment Construct is a template developed by the author to identify and flesh out the necessary alignment factors for a successful life or alliance. Goals, purposes, and principles are some of the elements covered by an Alignment Construct.
Of course, just listing alignment factors is not enough. One must keep them perpetually active in planning, management, and personnel interaction. For that there is Affirmative Direction, a personnel management method that keeps everyone focused on the Alignment Construct. Discipline can be replaced by reorientation. The intent of Affirmative Direction is to assist people to find their own reasons for doing their necessary parts while keeping those activities in pursuit of their own happiness and in support of personal integrity.
So what does alignment look like in practice? Everyone pursuing common plans and actions in a high spirit of co-operation with incredibly open communication and discussion, without internal competition.
If you don't see this in your group, look for misalignment.