How to use social alignment to put comms in context

We’ve all seen it: people at work struggle to collaborate and be effective because of misunderstandings, unconscious biases, assumptions, gaps in information, and social and environmental influences.

What can you do to address these issues?

Today I have a guest post by Lindsay Uittenbogaard (pictured) who is curious about new thinking in the social sciences. This curiosity led her to develop a social alignment process for teams, called Mirror Mirror, in 2016.

She’s based in The Netherlands and talked me through it recently during a call. Lindsay started her career managing the growth of small businesses before moving across to Internal Communications Management in 2001.

Since then, she has held global international communications leadership positions across the energy, IT, and telecommunications industries.

An IABC Accredited Business Communicator; Lindsay is also a certified member of the Reputation Institute. She has a Creative Arts degree and post-graduate diplomas in International Business Communication Management, and Broadcast Journalism.

I invited her to share thoughts with readers of the All Things IC blog and would love to know what you think about this topic. Feel free to comment below or you can find her on LinkedIn, Twitter @MirrorMirrorhub or via her website.

Here’s Lindsay…

Social Alignment – Putting Communications in Context

As Richard Nisbett, Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan wrote in his book Mindware (2015):

“Our understanding of the world is always a matter of inference and interpretation. Our judgements about people and situations, even our perceptions of the physical world, rely on stored knowledge and hidden mental processes and are never a direct readout of reality.”

Getting this sorted out is an emerging field in the social sciences and it’s called Social Alignment.

If you translate that into practice, the work is about optimising how people make sense of things to build a shared current reality.

Strategic vs Social Alignment

The definitions are still a bit fuzzy, but traditionally, the word ‘alignment’ within organisations was associated with the activity of mapping individual goals to the organisational strategy, as part of business process management (BPM) activities.

This is becoming known more specifically as ‘strategic alignment’, possibly in the light of building recognition that people can be aligned socially as well as strategically.

Social alignment is a term used to describe how one or more people can share a current reality based on a common understanding.

This helps people make better decisions and take better actions: it prepares them to succeed. Sharing a reality doesn’t mean everyone has to agree with each other, but it does mean that people are able to appreciate the views and diversity of others.

Further reading: Discover my internal communication jargon buster and glossary.

It’s Communications, D&I, Organisational Effectiveness and Leadership

I find Social Alignment an incredibly exciting area because – and I confess – after 15 years of experience in IC, I became disillusioned with its role and value.

I felt it was always a struggle because it supports leaders and managers who are so busy they delegate communication responsibilities that can’t really be delegated. It all felt wrong, and a lot of effort for not a lot of results.

For me, social alignment work is real communications in context.

We’re not talking about communications or ‘doing’ communications, we’re facilitating open and respectful interactions with people on the topic of their work, so they can build a better shared current reality about their work.

Yes, it’s interpersonal and needs to be complemented by wider organisational ‘framing’ communications, but it closes the gaps and adds huge value for a very small investment.

A response – the Mirror Mirror process

A variety of approaches and interventions to improve how people understand each other and they are widely used. MBTI, Belbin, away day workshops, meetings…. Can we do better?

My personal response to this in 2016, was to look social alignment right in the eye and ask a question: how do we identify and address social alignment gaps and opportunities?

The answer began with two principles:

  • A shared current reality can only exist meaningfully at the team level because the team goal is a central reference point. Go wider and the context isn’t relevant enough.
  • A ‘whole systems’ approach is needed, because if you try to build a shared current reality by looking at things through a single lens, like competencies or behaviours, you will enable some clarity but not enough to enable better decisions and actions.

The process I developed subsequently, called Mirror Mirror, uses guided interviews to capture how people perceive their work in the context of the team goal. It then compares the data between participants using visualisations to spot the alignment gaps and opportunities.

Finally – effective team level communications

When you report the results back to a team, they’re fascinated. This is their data, they own it, and now they know exactly where the dialogues are needed to ‘clear the fog.’  It’s a rapid process.

We’re almost finished trialling Mirror Mirror with 3 organisations and the results so far are very encouraging.

The Technical University in Delft has an intern assigned to enhance the data gathering and visualisation aspects of the process. If you’d like a copy of the case studies or just want to get in touch, I’m looking for people who want to advance Social Alignment as a new form of communication.

In the meantime, if you want to improve line manager engagement and business results through communications, Social Alignment could be your next thing.

“We want everyone at work to appreciate a better shared current reality, so they can be free of unnecessary frustration and confusion, feel good, and do amazing things.”

Post author: Lindsay Uittenbogaard.

Thank you Lindsay, I’m interested to see how the trials work out and what the Delft team uncover. Do get in touch with her if you’d like to find out more about this topic.

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First published on the All Things IC blog 26 November 2017.

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