In 2007, when I participated in a leadership seminar at the Rockwood Leadership Institute, then-president Akaya Windwood said something during a breathing exercise that I’ll never forget: “This is the meaning of ‘conspire’—to breathe together. To be so deep in it with each other that we share the same air. This is the level of closeness—of alignment—that we aspire to as leaders and movements.”
It’s true; the word conspire comes from the Latin conspirare, which means “to breathe together” and shares a root with the words inspire and aspire. This image and concept have deeply informed my work as a manager and consultant.
In an era of disruption and change across industries, managers need teams of innovative problem-solvers—and they need people to stay. But as important as it is, retention can be a challenge for many managers.
Many of the challenges managers face stem from bad habits that even the most well-intentioned leaders can’t shake. They might unthinkingly replicate outdated approaches to management—like the “command-and-control” style that embraces top-down hierarchy and productivity at the cost of people’s dignity. Or they might swing to another extreme, being so laissez-faire that they fail to give their team the support they need.
Managers need a new approach that balances getting strong results with building equitable and sustainable organizations—we need to conspire and align.
The conspire-and-align approach to management centers on coming together with our team members for a collective purpose and understanding how each person will contribute to realizing that purpose. It doesn’t rely on one leader to have all the solutions; it empowers the team to solve problems together because everyone knows what we’re trying to achieve.
When we conspire, we make clear our plans to get into what the late US representative John Lewis called “good trouble.” We huddle up to work out plays. We collaborate to disrupt the established way of doing things. When we align, we make our implicit expectations explicit, invite our team members to do the same, and make our way forward together. We operate like a flock of birds, as envisioned by Adrienne Maree Brown in Emergent Strategy: “There is an art to flocking: staying separate enough not to crowd each other, aligned enough to maintain a shared direction, and cohesive enough to always move towards each other.”
Here are three things to keep in mind in implementing a conspire-and-align approach:
1. Be flexible, curious, and humble.
Managers must have the humility to admit when uncertain—and to be curious about others’ perspectives even when they feel certain.
At the start of the pandemic, some organizations paused to listen to their community and staff to learn what they needed to do to be of service. Then, they moved decisively with integrity. The organizations that were most stable in the early days of covid had clarity and alignment around their mission and values. That alignment helped them hang together as they pivoted, adapted, made mistakes, and worked together to deliver on their mission during a pandemic. Lean on conspire-and-align when you know where you want to go but lack a roadmap for getting there.
2. Be transparent about hierarchy and power.
Managers often fall between two extremes when navigating their power. Some cling too tightly to one end of the spectrum, evidenced by rejecting new ideas in favor of preferences or traditions or reacting defensively to feedback (among other things). On the other side are managers who shy away from asserting authority—framing expectations as suggestions or “offers,” avoiding tough calls, or struggling with boundaries.
As managers, conspire-and-align means viewing employees as partners—people we exercise power with, not over. Still, don’t pretend that positional power doesn’t exist or that you don’t ultimately have decision-making authority if you do.
Being transparent about hierarchy and power (and exercising it thoughtfully) is central to effective management—that is, equitable, sustainable, and results-driven management. Here are some tips for how to do that well:
- Make the implicit explicit. Don’t expect other people to read your mind. Notice and name the expectations you have in your head. Use systems (like MOCHA) to clarify roles and responsibilities.
- Use sphere of control. Your sphere of control includes the relationships you build, the solutions you propose, and the feedback you share. Focus on what’s within your control and encourage your staff to do the same.
- Notice and act on your choice points—forks in the road where you can replicate the status quo or make a different decision that fosters equity, inclusion, and belonging. For instance, you can seek input from your team on a decision that affects them instead of just making it unilaterally. (Important note: Only do this when you are genuinely prepared to consider their suggestions!
3. Go slow to go fast.
When we build the relationships, cultures, and structures we need, we not only do better work in the long run—we build a space that is both safe and challenging, inclusive and purposeful. This kind of practice makes people look forward to coming to work every day.
Build structures that give you a consistent blueprint for how to approach management, such as:
- For delegation, use a three-step cycle: 1) Align on expectations for a project by defining the 5 Ws (who, what, where, when, and why) of the work and a little bit of the how; 2) Stay engaged; 3) Create accountability and learning.
- Establish regular check-ins with staff, using an agenda to keep it focused and normalizing both giving and receiving feedback.
- Use fair process to make big decisions and seek perspective from those who would be most affected.
When I talk to people about how they wish they were managed, their answers are often heartbreakingly simple. They want clear communication and consistent expectations. They want agency and understand how their efforts connect to a broader purpose. They want to feel that their perspectives are valued.
Culture is the sum total of the beliefs, values, and actions of those who participate in it. Everyone on a team is a culture keeper—and as a manager, you have an important role to play in making your values explicit and holding everyone (including yourself!) accountable to them.
Effective management requires constant balance and consistent practice. And even though it’s hard work, when we conspire and align, we’re never doing it alone.
Jakada Imani is CEO of The Management Center and co-author of the Amazon bestselling book Management in a Changing World: How to Manage for Equity, Sustainability, and Results.