Alike or aligned

 photo by  automatomato

photo by automatomato

During a recent coaching call, I made a distinction that feels important to share: the difference between being alike and being aligned.

In this particular case, the leader I was coaching was feeling really frustrated that she and her boss were just “too different” in how they did their work. Even though they seemed to want the same things, how they worked was causing friction and made her wonder whether her job was a good fit for her. She was really conflicted as she felt that her current work offered the opportunity for great impact in a field she cared deeply about. 

But when it comes to something like work styles, being alike isn’t actually all that important. It might make the work easier and cause less fussing between us, but we all navigate working with folks who are different from us in this way all the time. Navigating work styles that are not alike is fairly doable.

And actually, I would offer that being alike is frankly not all that important in most situations. We crave it. It makes things easier in the short term. But it’s not necessary. (Or even desirable if you want to make real change, IMO.)

Where it becomes more challenging is in the issue of alignment. To me, alignment is something both bigger than and more foundational than being alike. Alignment asks: Are we going in the same general direction? Do our fundamental ideals allow us to do some good work together Maybe we won’t do everything together, but when we’re aligned, we can see that there is something to do together. 

And this, of course, is where it gets tricky. How tightly we cling to our notions of “general direction” and “fundamental ideals” is the key to distinguishing between being alike and being aligned. Unless we can think of our general direction and fundamental ideals—our alignment—somewhat broadly, we are very likely to confuse it with being alike.

For example, with my coaching client, once we named a few things as work style issues, she was able to see that she didn’t need to be like her boss in these areas and could see her way clear to sorting those things out. 

But, she did still need to assess whether they were truly aligned in the work they had in front of them. We talked about some of the broader questions and general direction of their work: Did they both believe in the future of the program they were working on together? Did they believe that the program needed to be tweaked/refined or fundamentally transformed? Did they believe that they needed program stakeholders to be involved in the programmatic  shift? Did they want the program to grow or scale?

Even though they didn’t use the same language, it seemed to my client that she and her boss were going in the same direction. So there was good alignment there. And actually, we began to see that some of their differences could be really useful, even complimentary, to getting the work done. But the differences between them weren’t differences in alignment. My client and her boss simply were not alike.

For this client, the distinction between alike and aligned was really important, and once she made that distinction, she was free to get on with her important work in the world. 

It’s really easy to confuse alignment with alike-ness, especially when we care about our work deeply. But this confusion can lead us to insist on such perfect alignment that we’re actually reinforcing conformity. We are simply demanding that we have to be alike. When we make our field of alignment too small, we generally minimize the folks we’re willing to work with, the issues we’re willing to work on, and the ways we’re willing to work. This, in turn, minimizes our ability to make impact.

I would never ask clients—or myself—to compromise on issues of alignment.  And, of course, it’s a personal line to draw. I can’t tell anyone else where their line of alike and aligned is. But I will tell you that we have more possibilities for action—much needed action in today’s world—if we insist, not on being alike, but on being aligned.

I’ve got more ideas on alignment as it relates to power and oppression. That’s Aligned and Alike Part 2—coming soon!

This post was originally published at Tuesday Ryan-Hart's site.