Distinction: What is The Difference Between Agreement and Alignment?Mar 06, 2023
Written by Sebastian Little
Bottom Line: Rarely, if ever, will a team unanimously agree on a single decision, plan or idea. However, it is the leader’s responsibility to move the team forward in a way that achieves the desired outcome and respects the contribution of its members. In this article, we discuss the difference between agreement vs. alignment and how to leverage each to move your team forward.
Here are the operational definitions we will work with:
Agreement - Absolute consensus. Agreement occurs when personal choice and group choice are the same. It means we have the same perspective or context.
Agreement asks: Do you agree we should move in that direction?
Alignment - Willful consent. Alignment occurs when personal choice and group choice are not the same, but the individual is willing to support the decision or idea as if it were their own in service of the team and the larger vision.
Alignment asks: Are you willing to move with me in that direction?
Ryan McKeever, head of marketing at the St. Paul-based consultancy Aveus defines agreement as “unanimity of opinion. It requires a higher degree of commitment from each person on the team. When there is agreement, every person truly believes the direction of the decision and resulting actions are both their personal choice, and the choice of the group." (Inc, Mochari).
What this sounds like:
Agreement is our default. As a social species, we want to feel in complete harmony with our group. When we don’t, it can even create internal cognitive dissonance. It’s uncomfortable when we decide to move forward without the group’s unanimous full support.
When we ask for agreement, it often includes the words “want” or “can”. These aren’t fundamentally wrong, but they can halt progress. CAN points to capacity while WANT points to desire. These subjective perspectives are relevant and valuable things to know, however, they center feelings and preferences rather than the team’s mission or task. Being a part of a team often means you have to take on tasks you don’t like or feel like doing in service of a larger commitment.
Here are a few examples of how we often search for agreement:
Person A: Do we agree on this?
Person B: I agree on everything but this one point.
Result: Progress is stopped and you go back to the drawing board to accommodate all points of view and rebuild consensus.
Person A: Can you take notes during this meeting?
Person B: Well… yes I could…
Result: No explicit owner is defined. We are left to convince or coerce.
Person A: Do you want to take on this project or extra client?
Person B: No. I don’t.
Result: Feelings take priority over the mission or task at hand.
When our decision to invest time and energy equally affects everyone in the group and every member’s contribution is vital to the success of the project, agreement should be the goal. We not only want everyone rowing in the right direction, but we also want everyone’s energetic buy-in that we should be going in that direction.
McKeever expands on alignment: “Alignment means everyone can support a decision as if it were their own, even if they might have done something different if they ruled the world. It means they can feel good about standing on the same side, acting as a unified force” (Inc, Mochari).
While alignment is not better than agreement, it offers a different tool in a leader’s toolbelt to build momentum and get into action.
What this sounds like:
Person A: Are you open to/willing to take on Project A?
Person B: Yes. However, we will need to shuffle our timeline on Project B?
Result: Person B empowers their choice, takes on the necessary task, and counters with a concern of capacity. As a leader, address Person B’s priorities and support accordingly.
The next time you’re trying to get alignment, try using the following question: Is anyone NOT aligned? When we ask this question, we do two things:
We interrupt the agree/disagree thought pattern. By posing a negative question, it forces us to consider our stance.
Since the leader is asking for dissent, there is less risk of social capital if/when we dissent. Team members are being called to actively and honestly offer their perspective.
*Caveat: Asking only for alignment can be weaponized if this becomes a default pattern on a team. Covertly, alignment can become the way we manipulate and force our way of thinking upon the group. Be mindful of this, especially as an authority figure that holds rank or title.
When to use each:
Other factors to consider:
Risk: In high-risk decisions, look to get to agreement. The buy-in from all parties is vital to teammates taking full ownership from the start - especially if things get rocky down the road. Every future moment spent working out “I told ya so” detracts from the task at hand.
Speed: If you need to make a decision and get into action, use alignment. Sometimes, the situation demands we be in urgent action, without everyone’s opinion being hashed out.
Team Size: Alignment is a great tool for larger teams (groups of 10 or more), lower-risk decisions, and when speed is required. The larger the group, the more dissenting opinions to work through.
Disclaimer: Do not ask for agreement or alignment if you don’t need it. Asking for input you don’t plan to use will erode trust with your team. If your role empowers you to make decisions, make the decision and then invite your team to support you with the execution.
Leadership Practices: Alignment & Agreement in Action
Share the distinction between Agreement and Alignment and invite your team to use each tool intentionally for one week. Gauge the value of adopting new language.
Make a list of 5-10 pending or upcoming decisions in your relationship, in your business, or on your team. Rank order the list in terms of impact and tag each decision with either Agreement or Alignment.
Practice asking for alignment in your team meetings this week. Use the following prompts if helpful: “Is anyone not aligned?” “Are you open to…?” “Are you willing…?”
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