Team Building by Disclosure of
Internal Frames of Reference
Rex C. Mitchell, Ph.D.

Many interventions have been proposed to help work teams function more effectively. Such interventions are appropriately termed "team building" interventions because they seek to increase teams' effectiveness by strengthening the working relationships of the team members.

Most team building interventions are based on what has worked in practice, but relatively few are based explicitly on theory, and even fewer have been subjected to evaluative research. These notes discuss a unique, theory-based team building intervention whose impact was evaluated through a research study (see my 1986 article in the J. of Applied Behavioral Science, 22:15-28 for more information on the original study conducted in 1980.). The intervention requires no data gathering in advance, it can be conducted even with a relatively short investment of time, and according to the results of the study presented in this article--it appears to offer considerable assistance for improving group functioning.


This team building intervention was based on the work of Culbert and McDonough (1980), whose theory holds as its central premise the notion that each person finds a unique way of aligning self-interests with the needs of his or her job, and, further, that work teams whose members understand and respect one another's "alignments" function more effectively. Such an understanding allows team members to place one another in the proper context--that is, to understand what another person seeks to accomplish through her or his behavior and not project onto that other person's actions potentially inaccurate intentions. This does not imply that one agrees with another's internal framework and reality, only that one understands the other person and what he or she finds personally meaningful. Placing one's work associate into context means that one has sufficient insight into the associate's internal frame of reference to reasonably explain and attribute intent when considering the associate's action. One gains a perspective that provides a means of understanding another's position and behavior with respect to specific issues.

The perspective gained from understanding an associate's internal framework improves communications by reducing perceptual distortion and the tendency to rely on stereotypes that exaggerate differences among individuals. Such a perspective also reduces the amount of time spent reacting to inaccurate conceptualizations made during conflicts. In short, work associates come to value and respect one another more fully.

In their work, Culbert and McDonough focus on individuals' attempts to balance and reconcile competition between the external demands of their jobs and their own internal needs. The external demands are organizational requirements that the individual believes must be met for someone in the individual's position. The internal needs are self-interests and personal requirements that must be satisfied for the individual to find the job personally meaningful, including essential values, use of personal strengths and skills, the individual's interests, and needs related to one's current life situation. Culbert and McDonough theorize that each individual experiments with ways to balance, line up, and align these external and internal forces, attempts that lead eventually to a relatively stable "alignment"--or internal frame of reference--unique to each individual. One's alignment determines how one will uniquely perform one's job and relate to organizational events. When one's job or role changes, one usually modifies one's alignment so that one may continue to enhance one's personal interests while meeting organizational needs.

One's alignment is believed to create an individual "lens" through which one views and interprets all organizational events. Thus, alignment is conceived to affect significantly how people perceive events and assign meaning, and how they interact with one another, transact business, communicate, and perceive one another. These effects, in turn, significantly affect the product of people's work together.

An alignment is effective when a person's inner needs and specific skills match or mesh with the external expectations and demands on that person -- when a person's inner way of organizing his/her world, the internal framework directing that person's action and view of reality, allows him/her to represent important self-interests while making a contribution to the organization, An ineffective alignment occurs when a person's inner needs do not mesh very well with the external demands on him/her. A person has a successful alignment when he/she adds organizational credibility to an effective alignment.

Culbert and McDonough find that most people cannot conceptualize their own unique alignments, and even fewer can conceptualize the alignments of others. They further contend that one cannot accurately deduce intentions from observable behavior, and that the same behavior can mean different things to different people. Thus, Culbert and McDonough argue that determining alignments requires focused discussion aimed at provoking certain types of discovery and disclosure. Such discussions must encourage people to speak about their work orientations, provide facts on their backgrounds and past experiences, and present their attitudes toward their jobs and other aspects of their lives.

The intervention discussed in this article was based on the hypothesis that, with appropriate facilitation, groups of work associates can exchange information relevant to understanding one another's personal alignments, and that such an exchange will help these associates understand better where each individual is "coming from" and what he or she is attempting to do. A great deal of what was formerly considered suspect or strange about one's colleagues will thus appear more understandable and less troublesome. It was theorized that consideration of individuals' alignments can help prevent or resolve many organizational difficulties.


The abbreviated alignment intervention used in the original study consisted of a single session with a work group, comprising: (a) presentation of brief introductory material about alignment theory and how it can be used to help a work group increase understanding of each others' alignments and to improve the quality of their interactions; (b) giving each person a copy of a three-page document titled "Alignment Questions to Facilitate Communication, summarized in the next section, and allowing them time to read it and think about responses to some of the set of open-ended questions; (c) having each individual, one at a time, share their responses to some of these questions; and (4) brief group processing of information, additional disclosures, feelings, unfinished business, etc., after finishing the rounds of individual sharing. Additional details are given below.

An outline for the facilitator's mini-lecture given at the start of the session was:

  1. What is our purpose for this meeting?
    1. To provide an opportunity for you to establish a basis for making this team function even better than it already does, as you continue to work together.
    2. Elaborate, including mention of the term "team building," and checking on their understanding of and experience with team building.
  2. Some basic assumptions underlying what we will do in this session are:
    1. Subjectivity and self-interests permeate every organizational (team) action and "objective" decision.
    2. Self-interests and self-beneficial pursuits are not necessarily "rip-offs" or taking advantage of others...they are natural occurrences and interests of all of us.
    3. In today's culture and most situations, people place themselves and their projects in peril when they admit to the self-beneficial side of that which they advocate.
    4. Interpersonal brutality and organizational/team ineffectiveness result from pursuing self-interests in the guise of "objectivity"...we need a better alternative.
    5. People measure success related to achieving internal satisfaction, and each person holds a unique definition of success and is targeted toward a unique set of objectives that cannot be deduced merely by observing actions.
  3. In any organizational or team setting, each of us has two somewhat competing sets of considerations that we try to balance and satisfy:
    1. A personal orientation side, which:
      • Includes what is interesting to the individual
      • Is consistent with his/her personal values
      • Makes use of what he/she does best (skills and strengths)
      • Does not expose his/her non-skills or weaknesses to public scrutiny
      • Embraces or is consistent with his/her preferred logic and ways of thinking about things
    2. The task or job demand side:
      • His/her perceptions of what the job requires to be done well
      • His/her perceptions of the expectations of "important others" (their views on what is valuable and needs to be done in this situation)
  4. Each of us tries to satisfy, to some degree, both of these sets of considerations--without being able to optimize either of them. This attempt to position or align ourselves in a way to satisfy reasonably both sets of considerations tends to become a relatively stable orientation or "alignment" for each person in a given setting at a point in time, This inner structure or internal frame of reference has a strong influence on the way we see and interpret team or group events, formulate problems and respond to situations. Our frame of reference or alignment creates a "lens" through which each of us views events--and we tend to see them uniquely and differently from each other.

    This use of the term "alignment" is used to mean the internal frame of reference, unique to each individual, that each person constructs in lining up their values and self-interests with their perceptions of the demands, requirements and expectations of their job or current task role.

  5. The facilitator should next discuss the following points and topics:
    1. Some of the effects of the differences in alignments among individuals in a group, and why there are often invisible battles over meanings and attributions of intent as we judge each other's actions.
    2. How having a clearer and more complete appreciation of each other's internal frames of reference can be very beneficial in reducing these invisible battles and inefficiencies, distortions of meaning and negative feelings among work group members.
    3. It is neither practical nor necessary to attempt to make the alignments of all group members identical or even similar. However, there are sizeable benefits from having an accurate understanding of each other's alignment. For example, if I were a member of this group, such improved understanding could improve my ability to appreciate the other individuals and their actions from their frame of reference, rather than merely from my own frame of reference.

  6. This is the intent of our work together today: to provide an opportunity for each of you to share with the others information and a window through which they can glimpse and better appreciate your internal frame of reference and the orienting framework from which you operate--especially in this work group at this time...

After answering questions and clarifying points the group members seem not to understand, the facilitator gives each person a copy of the document summarized in the next section. They are asked to read it and reflect on some of the twelve questions. These open-ended questions are designed to help them share information that can improve the understanding and appreciation of their alignments by the other team members, and also improve their own understanding. The facilitator highlights a few points from the instructions in the document.

After the allotted time is used, the facilitator reminds them of the major instructions, and highlights the five orienting questions that they should have in mind as they share and listen to They decide on an order in which they will share a set of (many teams elected to draw lots). The facilitator tells approximately how much time is available for each person's round, and asks the first person to begin.

The facilitator helps each person, with particular care for the first one, share a set of information based on some of the twelve questions from the document list, Within the time constraints, there is processing and interaction to give support, show interest, and clarify understandings of the listeners, Both the intent and the short time constraints of the original interventions restricted the amount of interaction and did not allow extensive work with the information disclosed, although this would be done in a regular session that did not have such severe time constraints.

After each person has completed a round of sharing, there is a period for some additional interactions, disclosures, reflections on the total sets of information communicated by each person, processing the meeting, talking about how they can use this experience to better appreciate each other and improve their work together in the future, etc.

Following is a summary of the document given to each of the group members early in the intervention, as explained above.


The following questions are intended as aids in communicating with each other, to offer information in ways that will help us gain an improved understanding and appreciation of our own and the others' alignments. "Alignment" is used to mean the internal frame of reference (unique to each individual) that each person constructs in lining up their values and self-interests with their perceptions of the demands, requirements and expectations of their jobs or current task roles. A person's alignment creates the individual "lens" through which all work events are viewed and interpreted.

In the next X minutes (was only 15 minutes in the initial, time-limited study), will you please think through your responses to some of these questions. Your responses should be those you think will be most useful in communicating to the others insights about you that will help them gain an improved appreciation of your alignment, and will give them a more valid frame of reference for viewing your goals and accomplishments, especially those related to this field study project. It is not intended that everyone will go through responses to all the questions.

As we begin work, each team member will take turns (order determined by lottery) with each person communicating on questions they think are especially helpful, plus others, as asked by the listeners. The facilitator (and the other team members, as interested participants) will mostly listen, sometimes facilitate, each person's communications. As you listen to each other, it will be helpful to look for answers to five orienting questions, which define important learnings in gaining an appreciation for another's alignment (internal frame of reference):

  1. What is the person's crucial struggle (or orienting concern) in life and in the organization at this time?
  2. What is his/her personal process goal, i.e., what is the person trying to be as much as possible, when being the way he/she wants to be?
  3. Where and when are his/her important opportunities to be that way?
  4. What symbolizes a success for this person, and what does a tangible success look like today?
  5. What might be a success for the person in the future?

After each team member has had the chance to share a set of information, we will spend same time looking at what loose ends need tidying up, where we are on the learning curve relative to understanding each other's alignments and identifying some ways you might use these concepts and experiences together to make the work of this team more effective and fun.

Personal or Life Symbols Category
1. What are you trying to prove to yourself...what are you trying to prove to others...and, very importantly, why?
2. How do you want to be remembered by the people who are close to you, e.g,, what motto would you like to have carved on your tombstone?
3. What about you is most often misunderstood or misinterpreted by others?
4. Who were some persons who have been important role models for you, both "positive" and "negative," and in what ways are you like them and unlike them?

Career Category
5. What profession do you want to wind up in? Please tell why. If you are not in that profession, say how you plan to get into it.
6. What do you want to accomplish in that profession?
7. What honor or monument would you like to have symbolize your success in that profession, and please say why it would constitute a personal hallmark?
8. If you could custom-design your work/professional role, what would it be?

Current Work (or Organizational) Category
9. What word or short phrase would you use to best describe (in the context of your present association with this team: (a) you, (b) you as others see you, (c) you as you would like to be seen?
10. Describe the work experiences with this team that were most: (a) satisfying or personally rewarding, (b) frustrating or unpleasant.,.and help us understand what made these so for you.
11. If you could spend more time doing "exactly what you want to do" in this team or work project, what changes would you make in your present activities?
12. What is the next lesson you need to learn (with respect to this work project and team) and what are your plans for doing so?


The original (1980) study (and subsequent work) provided strong evidence for the value and potency of a team building intervention based on alignment theory. The intervention design and process proved effective for improving work group relationships for a variety of teams. Even a short (2.5-hour) intervention produced substantial improvements immediately following the intervention and continued improvement during a subsequent two-month period of normal work.

The alignment intervention used in the original study was an abbreviated application of a model used as the basis for a one- to three-day intervention for work groups. The model appears flexible enough to permit a wide range of applications. Some of the major mechanisms I believe are important to success with this type of intervention are outlined below.

First, I found it important for participants to understand clearly at the outset of the team building sessions that the intervention would not attempt to change the values, personalities, or alignments of the individuals. Rather, I stressed that the major purpose was to provide a basis for creating "road maps" to aid in exploring and understanding team members' statements and actions in light of the team members' different values, personalities, and alignments. The confirming aspects of this approach to the intervention seemed to facilitate both the process work during the intervention and the subsequent interactions of team members.

Second, there appears to be considerable value in, and something special about, having participants share the types of information about themselves that are typically exchanged in an alignment intervention. The types of information shared by the participants seemed to provide "predictive" and "explanatory" knowledge (Berger, Gardner, Parks, Schulman, & Miller,1976) about the respondent to those listening. Such knowledge allows the listeners to predict and explain the respondent's beliefs and actions with reasonable accuracy, permitting the listeners to make generalizations about a wide range of actions by the respondent. The value of predictive and explanatory knowledge is somewhat analogous to the advantage one has in learning the scientific principles underlying a physical event rather than relying solely on descriptive details of the event.

Third, the observed effects of the alignment intervention, specifically the types of understanding facilitated, seem to contribute to the "synesic role-taking" described by Cushman and Craig (1976, p. 55), involving "imaginative construction of the other's self-conception such that not only is his behavior anticipated, but an understanding of his feelings, perceptions, and definition of the situation is gained." I found that these interventions helped participants interpret and define one another's behavior by increasing their ability to listen to the cues of others in a way that allows the individual to take on or appreciate the other's role well enough to develop expectations about that person, provide cues to other team members about one's own definition of a situation, and negotiate meanings when expectations are unclear or misinterpreted.

As with most forms of interpersonal development, the results of an alignment intervention are determined not only by its theoretical framework and design, but also by its specific process transactions. The design appears robust and flexible, permitting effective use by a wide variety of team building facilitators. Alignment interventions seem worthy of addition to the repertoire of intervention techniques. An alignment intervention does not require any advance data collection--such as sensing interviews--and does not employ any measurement instruments. It complements many current forms of interventions, and can be used either as an alternative to these interventions or in combination with other techniques.

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Last modified July 12, 2016 Copyright 1980-2016 Rex Mitchell