What the kitchen sink can teach us about alignment: 4 common tradeoffs holding leaders back

Photograph of dirty coffee cups

The condition of the kitchen sink is often the reflection of the health of a relationship.

Why? Because most people agree that they would like to have the kitchen be a clean space for everyone to enjoy. And yet, the sink is often full of dirty dishes (which is gross.)

In a relationship or roommate situation, this shows up when one person is more particular than the other about the kitchen sink. Do dirty dishes pile up, or are they immediately rinsed and put into the dishwasher? Endless conversations about what is expected, desired, and needed take place, everyone agrees to do better, and a week later, there’s another pile of dirty dishes in the sink.

So what stops us from aligning to that agreement? My colleague pointed out that when it is easy – it’s easy! If the dishwasher is empty or even half-full of dirty dishes, alignment is simple – just pop your dishes in. Many people are pretty good about that.

Alignment gets hard when you open the dishwasher, and it is full of clean dishes – now you need to take an extra two minutes to unload it before you can align your behavior to the agreed to standard of ‘no dirty dishes in the sink.’ Even worse is when it is full of dirty dishes, and it needs to be run before alignment can happen (no, cramming more dishes on top of dishes doesn’t count.) Now, alignment means you need to start the dishwasher and then wash your dishes by hand and put them away (yes, there is soap and that is possible.)

In those moments it is easy to walk away and just forget about alignment.

This happens literally and figuratively around organizations all the time. Shared kitchen space is a reality in many workplaces, and it seems no matter how stern, humorous, or blunt the signs are around the place, dirty dishes always end up in the sink. Routinely in team meetings, the shared kitchen space is discussed, and everyone agrees that dishes should not be left in the sink. And yet – the next day – there they are. Side note: don’t even get me started on the microwave situation!

The same behavior extends to significantly more important work. People sit in meetings and discuss sizable investments, meaningful strategies, and customer impacting actions. Heads nod, and everyone agrees with the need to do things differently, and then the next day – it is business as usual.

Here’s the thing. Agreement is not alignment. Alignment requires leaders to do the hard work of taking action to change themselves to create the necessary outcomes. If the outcome is a clean kitchen area, it means wrestling with why someone might think it is OK to just put their dishes in the sink – what mindset is showing up in identity, privilege, and ego? How are hard to break habits showing up in group dynamics in terms of respect, communication, and power dynamics? What practical constraints exist in the environmental factors that can be removed? Those are tough and confronting questions, but the sink situation isn’t going to change if they aren’t asked.

Likewise, agreeing to grand plans to transform an organization, pivot to a new strategy, or implement different systems and processes won’t create the desired outcomes if leaders don’t grapple with the individual mindsets, group dynamics, and organizational factors that stand in the way of alignment.

In every organization, there are tradeoffs that hold leaders back from aligning. We’ve come up with a handful that seem to happen everywhere, and the top four most common ones include:

  1. Letting short term financial pressure trump long term investments

  2. Prioritizing siloed success over organizational success

  3. Systems and processes that deliver reliable and predictable work while discouraging risk-taking and innovation

  4. Rewarding heroics more than investing in preventing a crisis

If any of those sound familiar, you may be in an organization where agreement is thought to be enough, and alignment doesn’t happen.

Leaders can’t stop at agreement. They must step up to have the hard conversations about how individual mindsets, group dynamics, and organizational factors get in the way of aligning decision making and behaviors to the desired outcomes. Tradeoffs like these must be made visible and wrestled with effectively.  When enough leaders start to insist on having the right discussion about alignment, you can inoculate the organization against individual leaders who resist change and fail to personally align. Likewise, if enough people align on the kitchen sink standards, the outliers become painfully obvious, making it easier for the group as a whole to create conditions where everyone aligns.

Otherwise, the dream of a clean kitchen will always be overrun by a pile of dirty dishes, and the dream of transformation will always succumb to old habits.