Leaders underestimate the impact of even subtle misalignment at the top…just a little daylight between members of a leadership team becomes blinding and overwhelming to employees one or two levels below. ~Patrick Lencioni
One of my childhood memories from the farm in Kansas was spending time with a friend in a large old barn where she kept her horse. Like most old barns, this one was several stories high, completely open with no windows, and there were cracks between some of the aging boards and slats. Despite the lack of windows, because the two-story vaulted ceiling put quite a bit of distance between us and the roof, even a slight crack of daylight pinching through was enough to light the entire barn. I'm certainly no physicist, but Lencioni says he's heard this referred to as the "vortex effect."
In working with leadership teams, I've discovered a common assumption: the absence of disagreement = alignment. In other words, if we're not disagreeing then we must agree and if we agree then there must be alignment. We don't disagree so there's no daylight between leaders; no vortex effect here. This is a dangerous assumption.
First, let's add some perspective. Every day the average person produces six newspapers worth of information compared with just two and half pages 24 years ago – nearly a 200-fold increase. All this information needs storing and we now each have the equivalent of 600,000 books stored in computers, microchips and even on the back of our credit cards. I just checked, and my college alma mater's library has a total of 130,000 volumes. So that's more than 4.5 times my college library.
The ability to process all this information with computers has doubled every 18 months and with telecommunication devices has doubled every two years.
We could list many more staggering statistics about the amount of information that we all try to process on a daily basis, but I think you get the point. If the leaders in an organization aren't absolutely, positively, and unequivocally creating clarity and alignment for their employees, then the daylight that pushes through the ever-so-slight misalignment becomes the vortex effect. Like my childhood experience with the light in the old barn, the organization becomes filled with misperceptions, misinformation, and is consequently misled.
None of us yearn for more information, data, or messages to be hurled in our direction. But we do long for a mechanism to filter what's really meaningful and what really matters. Lencioni suggests that a leadership team must create clarity and become fully aligned (i.e., they have no doubt that when they leave a meeting all decisions are crystal clear and will be communicated with absolute precision from every member of the leadership team). Then Lencioni says that leadership teams must over-communicate this clarity and then reinforce clarity.
I've talked with several executives lately who've said they feel like they are repeating themselves a lot and view that as some type of failure on their part. That's not the case, at all. It's simply a sign of the times. Leaders must intentionally (and yes, frequently) over-communicate clarity and then reinforce that clarity. Think of all the information and messages leaders are competing with, and against. You can only win the battle against the vortex effect by continually, constantly, and intentionally aligning your leadership team and your employees with clarity.