Shared reality is crucial for an international team

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As a company grows and its ambitions become increasingly international, its teams will also need to work across borders. How can team members in different locations, and with different backgrounds and cultures align around a shared goal, especially if they only communicate electronically? Lindsay Uittenbogaard knows the answer.

Imagine a software company based in Finland, whose coders are based in different countries and whose sales organisation is spread across Europe. The employees of this company need collaborate seamlessly to meet the demands of their clients.  To what extent is this possible if every meeting is held via video chat?

Lindsay Uittenbogaard, an employee communications professional from the Netherlands believes that when it comes to team efficiency, the focus should start with alignment. This is so that fundamentally, the team is able to connect and act to achieve their shared goal with a clear sense of direction and purpose.

She commented: “People don’t achieve great results, teams do. But what gets in the way of great strategy implementation is how people naturally see things differently, especially in complex work environments. Misunderstandings, assumptions, interpretations, information gaps, biases: unmanaged, these can lead to misalignment and conflicting decisions and actions, poor performance, frustration, and wasted time and money. All too often, teams can wallow around in a state of unnecessary misalignment that easily goes unnoticed and fail to take a step back to get a better shared current reality.”

Team alignment is based on a term emerging from the social sciences, called ‘social alignment’, and it has three components:

  • Shared cognition: people have a collective understanding of their shared context
  • Social participation: people interact with each other effectively
  • Personal relevance: the purpose of the individual links to the purpose of the team.

Everyone involved should be moving in the same direction

Team alignment is crucial when the team context gets more complicated, because there is more to align on. Transition, change, mergers, and acquisitions: it is essential that everyone involved is moving in the same direction.

However, as a company grows and changes, the interaction that creates alignment can be the first thing to be forgotten. This can leave people in a state of ‘fog’, where people have to rely on their own interpretations of why, what and how to move forward. Rarely are these independently created realities compatible when it comes to strategy implementation, which leads to underperformance, as well as untold frustration and cost.

Uittenbogaard previously worked for one company that at one point decided that its new strategic direction would be to ’Go Digital’.

”No one really knew what that meant. A lot of people came to their own conclusions and tried to act accordingly. Few people dared to ask for more information, since they were afraid that they would look foolish. In order to make sense of things, they got together in groups and made up their own versions of reality about what was happening. That’s exactly how our brains work during times of uncertainty,” says Uittenbogaard.

She continues: “General employee communications do a great job of framing up the requirements for each team – what the brief is, what the performance indicators are. But that’s still a ‘tell’-style piece. And you can’t tell people to align together around that – they have to work that out for themselves. What is often missing in organizations is the opportunity and the psychological safety for people to understand how the ‘frame’ relates to their role, specifically.

Three steps towards shared understanding

According to Uittenbogaard, a team leader can promote team alignment by taking three steps:

First, every team member needs the opportunity to understand what is happening, why, and how it relates to their work, which takes an open and respectful dialogue.  Let them ask questions, ask them how they interpret the general messages.

Second, Uittenbogaard recommends that during this process, team leaders need to listen carefully to their employees to find out where the misalignment gaps are.  From that, it will be obvious what is clear and not clear, and what they need to know to reach clarity for themselves.

Third: this process will be full of useful feedback for wider stakeholders. Team leaders can spread the alignment wider than with just their team to stakeholders by summarising what wasn’t clear, how the messages were perceived and what could be needed to maintain or get more clarity and alignment.

Being heard and shared values enhance work

As remote working and virtual teams become more and more common, it can become increasingly difficult for employees to feel included and heard. According to a wide-ranging survey by Harvard Business Review,  remote workers are more likely to feel that they are being left out of their organisations. They also worry about whether their colleagues say negative things about them behind their backs and change their projects without informing them about it.

“Everyone should feel that they are respected, valued and heard in the workplace, if we are expecting them to make a positive contribution” notes Uittenbogaard.

Towards a shared reality

Uittenbogaard has developed her observations into a team alignment process called Mirror Mirror. She claims that research and case studies show it to be the quickest and most cost efficient way of getting teams ready to transition, implement strategy, innovate, and improve performance. involves guiding a team into creating more clarity and alignment for itself and it takes three steps:

  • The Mirror Mirror team captures how people perceive their work with guided, anonymous interviews.
  • The results are compared to show where the alignment gaps and opportunities are.
  • A dialogue-based workshop allows people to explore the common ground and differences.

Lindsay Uittenbogaard 

  • An entrepreneur and communications professional from the Netherlands.
  • Background: 25 years of commercial experience. Spent the first ten years of her career in entrepreneurial and small business management roles, after which she moved across to communication leadership positions in major corporations in the oil, gas, IT and telecommunications industries.
  • Company: i2i Practical Communications, which helps its clients enhance their work with the Mirror Mirror process.

For more information on the Mirror Mirror process, visit: http://mirrormirrorhub.com/

Watch a slideshow on the Mirror Mirror process: https://www.slideshare.net/MirrorMirrorHub/scenario-connecting-virtual-teams