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Why good teams have forced alignment conversations

Not long ago I had a 1–1 with someone that has stuck with me. Like a lot of 1–1s with people who are good at their jobs, this person brought their lists: what they were working on, areas where they felt blocked, questions they had.

This was a great 1–1. I left feeling energized, both by the practical discussion and by the growth and leadership the person showed. But despite the well-organized list that guided us through the conversation, there was one question they left unasked — they didn’t ask which things on the list were most important.

Most talented people at work cover more surface area than their managers expect. From the outside, it’s easy to see this as a product of putting in longer hours. Sometimes this is a factor, but it is not the only one. In my experience, the most valuable people in any workplace cover more surface area because they pick the right surface area to cover in the first place.

In other words, a big part of being high-capacity is making sure that you’re focused on the tasks that matter most — to your business, to your team, and to you personally. A few years into my career, I developed a trick to help me figure out which tasks I should focus on. It wasn’t a very complicated trick: I just asked.

I continued to bring my lists to my 1–1s with my manager, but I also added a question into the mix every week: if I had five things on my list but could only do three of them well in the time we had, which three should they be? That simple question made sure that my manager and I agreed on what I should focus on, every single week. I got a lot better at focusing on the right things.

I call these conversations forced alignment conversations. At their core, forced alignment conversations make sure that manager and employee agree on what is most important, so the right work gets prioritized and the business grows.

But forced alignment conversations do something else that is just as important. These discussions establish sustainable boundaries for employees.

Even good managers are tempted to pile on work to their best team members. After all, there’s always more work to do than people to do it, and it’s natural to look to high-capacity, ambitious people to lead the most important tasks.

Especially for people early in their career, it can be difficult to say no. You want all the opportunities you can get! The reality, though, is that even the most talented people are not infinite resources, and great managers are willing to engage on individual priorities. Not everything is equally important. Forced alignment conversations not only force alignment on business priorities, but also on general expectations about capacity.

Of course, this is a two-way street. When I tell my manager, “Help me pick which three items on my list are the most important,” they can respond in one of two ways. They can align with me on the top three items on the list, or they can tell me that handling the whole list is a reasonable expectation in their view.

In either case, it’s valuable to be explicit about priorities and expectations. When I’ve had reports come in with lists that I think are unreasonable, I generally lead us into a forced alignment conversation even if the other person hadn’t been planning on it. As an employee, it’s definitely your job to look out for your own priorities and boundaries. But as a manager, it’s your job to look out for your employee’s priorities and boundaries too, especially if you think they’re not confident in pushing back.

Next time you feel like your list is overwhelming, try a forced alignment conversation. Not just once, but as a regular part of how you have 1–1s with your manager. These conversations are not only investments in your own growth, but in the growth of your organization. Good businesses prioritize!

This post originally appeared in Fast Company
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