Is Cultural Alignment Even Possible?

“Culture is everything people do.” Unknown

There are over 58,000 results when you Google “cultural alignment.” I will save you the reading time and share the common thread: “cultural alignment” — “organizational alignment” — is an HR poster child. If your organization is not aligned, you need to fix it they say.

I disagree. Culture alignment is more of a myth than something real.

Getting the entire organization to rally behind something all the time is like a mirage. We can all see it. We all pursue it as the perfect oasis in the middle of the desert. But the illusion of alignment rapidly vanishes once we look at it from a closer distance.

Is alignment possible at all?

“We hire professionals for their expertise but then they end bringing their personalities to work.”  —  Anonymous

If there’s something I’ve learned managing various organizations it’s that every time I thought everyone was aligned, I was proven wrong. Most of my clients have experienced that too.

Companies are made of human beings. Don’t expect your organization to be perfect. Don’t get fooled by picture-perfect PR stories of companies like Google, Zappos or Netflix. Those are great companies, but they have their issues.

Alignment is important, but is it for real? Are people being honest? Or just hiding their ideas or disagreements? Or, even worse, are your team members pretending to be aligned because they’ve checked out?

The culture questions

Culture is not defined but lived

Culture is everything people do. Culture is not just the mission or a vision defined by management. It goes well beyond a poster full of motivational quotes and inspiring purposes. How those values are lived is what matters the most:

  • Do you provide space for experimentation?
  • How do you deal with mistakes?
  • Can your team make real decisions or must they always ask for approval?

The more meaningful and sustainable actions are those organically created by the employees rather than “the management.”

Culture is seen as static yet people are always changing

Organizational culture is something dynamic. That’s why I always encourage clients to look for “cultural fitness” rather than cultural fit.

Diversity of thinking is the basis for constant improvement. Group thinking and consensus will only drive repetition, predictability and boredom instead.

Dynamism also affects your top supporters. People change. Those who are top performers can lose their productivity due to personal problems or specific frustrations. Sometimes temporarily, sometimes forever.

Preserving culture in the face of turnover

People come and go. That’s why they need to prepare them for when they leave. And be prepared for when they do so.

Many experts will tell you they can reduce your turnover. They don’t realize that the dream of lifetime careers is fading, and not just for millennials. My advice: Instead of resisting the new paradigm, embrace it. And thrive. How can you embrace turnover to enrich your culture rather than suffer from it?

Pursuing alignment can be demotivating

Every time you get a person or a team aligned, another one gets derailed.

Take kids as an example. As parents, we tend to focus more energy on the one that is always in trouble. Once we succeed, what normally happens is that then another of our kids gets into trouble. There’s a psychological explanation to that. We are sending the message that troublemakers deserve more attention.

That’s a pretty common phenomenon in the workplace too. When leaders spend too much time on “who’s not on board” and why, it can be a distraction for those who actually are. It can become demoralizing too. By prioritizing energy on “troublemakers,” those who are aligned might ask themselves: “If the rest don’t care, why should I?

Alignment can inhibit innovation

Innovation leadership is about managing contradictions.

As Dr. Philip Hucke explains here, an all-or-nothing approach is not effective. Leaders need to balance Exploration (innovation) and Exploitation (optimization). Managing existing solutions, business models and operations should not be at the expense of innovation.

Driving alignment towards the current state of the business can limit the exploration of its future state.

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So stop chasing the alignment myth

Sorry to shatter your illusion. Don’t expect your workplace to always be supportive. Things will never be smooth. Facing resistance and constraints is a given for any change agent, regardless of your role. Rather than expecting those barriers to magically disappear, embrace them and use them in your favor.

Focus your energy on developing the right mindsets and behaviors, rather than on alignment.

It took me many years of making mistakes, both as a parent and as a leader to learn the most basic lesson: We cannot control how people will ultimately behave:

  • Treat your team like adults and they will behave as such.
  • Keep telling your team members how to do something and they will just to please you (or pretend they are doing so).
  • Keep highlighting your employees’ mistakes and they will lose their passion (and your authority will evaporate too).
  • You can set standards, goals and values but provide the freedom for your employees to prioritize their work. Let them decide how to run their projects.
  • Inspire your team to achieve something great and meaningful. And they will surprise you with solutions and results that go well beyond your expectations.

Keep your culture alive one team at a time

The best way to change an organization is one team at a time. Here are some team-driven initial steps to rethink alignment:

  1. Decentralize alignment — It’s easier to start with a team eager to try new things that others might resist. Build on their results and excitement.
  2. Break down your organizational purpose — Organizational purposes are important. But having team-specific purposes will drive bigger employee engagement. People connect better to the folks they normally work with and to the purpose that brings them together.
  3. Alignment by project matters the most — What people can change or impact makes them more excited. Work is not just doing things. That’s what AI is for. Human beings find pleasure and emotional reward in doing things that make them feel valued and useful.

We saw a huge engagement improvement at my previous company when we implemented Self-Organization. Creating multi-disciplinary teams with full budget and decision-making authority increased commitment.

Contributing to making projects come to life, drives passion and makes work feel more meaningful.

I guess we can all align behind that purpose.

Gustavo Razzetti

Gustavo Razzetti helps unstuck teams to ignite innovation and accelerate change. He is the CEO of  Liberationist, Change Leadership School and author of Stretch for Change.

In his capacity advising CEOs of everything from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies, Razzetti has been able to lead and transform organizations for over 20 years.

He has consulted companies in almost every business category including Verizon, P&G, 20th Century Fox, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Allstate and the Mexico Tourism Board, among others. Gustavo was previously EVP at Leo Burnett Chicago. Prior to that, he worked as CEO of Euro RSCG in New York, Argentina, and Puerto Rico. 

He has authored hundreds of articles on innovation, change leadership and self-improvement. He also participated in the — by invitation only — Innovation Leadership Program at Stanford University. 

Now living in Chicago, Razzetti is married with two sons.

For speaking arrangements, please contact: gustavo@liberationist.org