This is the first in a series of guest posts by members and researchers. This post is from Lindsay Uittenbogaard:
The Emerging Field of Social Alignment
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.
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 called Social Alignment. The term has emerged over the past few decades, arguably beginning with Social Constructivism, which takes the view that all knowledge, and therefore all meaningful reality as such, is contingent on human practices, being constructed in and out of interactions between human beings and their world, and developed and transmitted within an essentially social context. 
According to Social Constructionism, meanings are constructed rather than discovered, and people may construct meanings in different ways depending on their ‘social relativity’, as all human knowledge is developed and transmitted in social situations, in specific socio-historical contexts. 
Since meanings are constructed and are not absolute, Social Constructionism is seen as relativist; it is not focused on ‘the way things are’ but ‘the sense people make of them’, and it is not concerned with the validity of meanings, but the ways meanings are generated in socio-historical contexts, by people, from culture, through language. This is particularly relevant in an organizational context where progress is largely dependent on shared meaning.
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Translating Social Alignment into practice would therefore be 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 organizations was associated with the activity of mapping individual goals to the organizational 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.
A response – the Mirror Mirror process
Within many organisations a variety of approaches and interventions are used to improve how people understand each other. Instruments (many of which have little research validity) such as MBTI, Belbin, away day workshops, meetings are frequently used as process at achieving social alignment, however can we do better?
The first issue is to recognise that what we are trying to achieve is actually social alignment – a shared set of meanings and understandings.
A new approach, still being validated, is being developed to help organisations achieve greater levels of social alignment. This method for obtaining social alignment was first developed in The Netherlands in 2016 by a company that started out looking for something to improve Line Manager communication.
Poor social alignment
The initial approach was to gain an experience-based understanding of what poor social alignment looks like and then by asking the question: ‘how do we identify and address alignment gaps and opportunities?’
There are two overarching principles that underpin social alignment:
- A shared current reality can only exist meaningfully at the team or group 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 traditional view about social alignment, particularly in the social-cognitive neuroscience space tends to argue that the mental states of individuals become shared as they adapt to each other in the pursuit of a shared goal.
However more recent research in terms of social cognition and social alignment explains this as a graded and dynamic process of alignment of individual minds, and meaning, even in the absence of a shared goal.  It has recently (2017) been found that when people reciprocally exchange information about each other’s thinking, and the meanings they are ascribing to things, processes of alignment tend to unfold over time, creating a social interaction and shared understandings – the base foundations of social alignment. 
The process that was subsequently developed, 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.
With this approach, the idea is to get the team to start thinking and talking about their context and the effectiveness of their communications. The intention is to improve understanding and shared meaning. It’s not talking about communications or ‘doing’ communications, it’s 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. However, this does need to be complemented by wider organisational ‘framing’ communications. By closing the gaps in meanings and understandings adds huge value at a low cost. The main point here is that the teams quickly learn how to do this themselves and make it part of their daily work life.
Importantly 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 conversations are needed to ‘clear the fog.’
References Nisbett, R. E. (2015). Mindware: Tools for smart thinking. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  Crotty, M (1998) The foundations of social research: meaning and perspective in the research process. London: SAGE.  Berger and Luckmann (1971) The Social Construction of Reality.  Gallotti, M., Fairhurst, M. T., & Frith, C. D. (2017). Alignment in social interactions. Consciousness and cognition, 48, 253-261.  Gilchrist, A. K., Burton-Jones, A., Green, P., & Smidt, M. (2017). The Process of Social Alignment and Misalignment within a Complex IT Project.
About the author: Lindsay Uittenbogaard
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. Her curiosity about new thinking in the social sciences led her to develop a social alignment process for teams, called Mirror Mirror, in 2016.
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.
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