Two Tips for Preventing False Alignment

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One of the first lessons taught in negotiation is to build alignment, which is achieved by convincing the other person that you are both on the same side. However, sometimes savvy negotiators use this technique to their advantage and run circles around you, leaving you in the dust once you’ve realized what’s actually happened. Other times, alignment is based on a misunderstanding: for example, have you ever walked out of a meeting where everyone seemingly came to an agreement only to realize later on that everyone had a different interpretation of said agreement?

Here are two techniques I’ve found useful in preventing these types of false alignments:

Clarify Prioritization

A while ago, our group had a reorg. A few of us were tasked with creating a deck to present at an org all-hands to everyone impacted by the new org’s goals, its structure, and the reorg. One of my colleagues volunteered to take a stab at the first draft of the presentation. When I reviewed it, I realized it focused on the 30,000-foot view — the new org’s mission, goals, and aspirations — but it made no mention of the reorg.

When he and I scheduled a meeting to discuss how we could improve this presentation, it became clear that he really did not want to call this a “reorg,” preferring to call this an “evolution” instead and making it sound like nothing had changed. I pointed out that one of the employees’ top concerns was which things have changed and how they are impacted. He responded, “I agree that’s important, so we’re aligned!”. At that moment, I wasn’t sure how to respond. On the surface, he said he agreed with me, so how was I to continue this conversation?

I’ve also had a colleague mention to me that she felt gaslighted when dealing with another coworker, because the conversation often proceeded as follows:

Colleague A: I think we need to consider [X], and this plan doesn’t consider it.

Coworker B: I agree [X] is important; that’s why this plan has it. So we’re aligned, right?

Colleague A: No, we’re not aligned because we need to consider [X].

Coworker B: Yes, we are aligned because I agree [X] is important!

Later on, I realized: in a vacuum, everyone cares about everything that is “good.” Everyone would like to achieve world peace, cure cancer, reduce our carbon footprint, and increase happiness in the world. In a vacuum, everyone is “aligned.” However, what actually matters is prioritization: given limited resources, among all the values we care about, how would we prioritize them? For example, if you’re hit with a deliverable with an impossible deadline, do you prioritize the full scope of the work or employee well-being? If you’re announcing a reorg, do you prioritize making everything sound like nothing has changed or telling people exactly who is impacted and how they are impacted?

Pushing for prioritization helps clarify the differences (if there are any) between people. In this case, my colleague prioritized high-level aspirations and stability first and the specifics of impacted personnel and work second, whereas I had my prioritization reversed. Neither of us was right nor wrong, but clarifying our stances by pushing for prioritization helped crystalize what we both cared about in their relative order, which allowed us to have an honest conversation around the various proposals — instead of sweeping the disagreements under the rug under the guise of “alignment.”

Focus on Specifics

Another common tactic, publicized by Sarah Cooper in “10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings,” is to “encourage everyone to ‘take a step back.’” While she intended the article to be a satire, taking a step back is actually a useful skill to build alignment! However, as discussed above, sometimes savvy negotiators use it to take advantage of others.

Here’s a generalized formula:

Person A: “For this specific problem, we need to make sure [X] is covered.”

Person B: “Let’s take a step back and align our principles. Our principle is [insert grandiose phrase that is set up to contradict X]. Do you agree?”

Person A: “Yes, that principle makes sense, and I agree to it. But…”

Person B: “Whoa whoa whoa, we already agreed on that principle. Given that principle, we should omit [X].”

Sometimes in this situation you’re caught agreeing to something you would not have otherwise. For example, an engineering leader might quote venture capitalist Ben Horowitz’s book “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” and stress that one of the company’s core values is to “take care of the people, the products, and the profits — in that order” to obtain alignment on a 30,000-foot view. He may then use that alignment as a reason to not push his engineers to work late nights and weekends in order to preserve morale.

However, the specific situation will dictate how different principles are applied. For instance, if you are at a 15-person startup and are about to close a contract or raise another round, any delay may risk the company’s survival or runway. While the principle is still valuable, the application of it may be different.

This is when you need to push for specifics. For example, you might say, “I agree as a principle that we should take care of the people, the products, and the profits — in that order, but in this specific case, we are about to close this big contract so we really need to complete this feature in two weeks. Otherwise, the company cannot survive and the ensuing layoffs will contradict our people-first principle, so the survival of the company must come first.”

Building alignment is extremely important in any work setting. However, a prerequisite to building real alignment is truly understanding where our differences lie, so that both sides are walking into an agreement with full clarity of the situation. You don’t want to accidentally agree to something, nor do you want your coworker to experience buyer’s remorse. Ultimately, it’s in everyone’s shared interest to build real alignment (or recognize misalignments!).

For more musings on tech culture, organization building, and management, follow me on Twitter @kenk616.

Product-minded Engineering Leader. Organization & Cultural Builder. Traveler. Martial Artist (Muay Thai & Pekiti Tirsia Kali).

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