If I asked you to write down the rules and norms for your household, it may take some reflection to generate a robust list. Yet, one shortcut is to observe a child in action. When learning their way in life, children make a lot of missteps. From “Don’t put that in your mouth” to “We don’t look in other people’s purses,” listening to what a child is being corrected for can signal the long-established group norms. In many cases, these “broken rules” are things you would not think to articulate—that is, until a child enters the picture!
In the workplace, it may take some discussion to reflect on and develop a list, but it’s well worth the effort.
Spoiler alert: One of my favorite Group Agreements is to use an Elmo doll in meetings. "ELMO" stands for "Enough, let's move on." You can throw Elmo or just show a key-chain size Elmo on a virtual meeting, and everyone gets the message in a playful way.
What are Group Agreements?
Group Agreements are norms and guidelines that explicitly state the unwritten rules of how your team agrees to interact. They work best when discussed, formally written down, and kept in a prominent place. What’s more, they are a living document that needs to be adjusted as the team grows. It’s important to dust them off, review them, and discuss them periodically.
People often ask me what is the secret to a high-performing team, and establishing these norms is a tactic I have seen be very successful in many different types of settings. Known by many names including “group charter,” agreements are a set of expectations that you (or others) can refer back to and reinforce to optimize interpersonal and team dynamics and address issues that may occur. They create psychological safety—a safe space for conversation that allows people to be more honest and forthcoming.
How to use Group Agreements
Why are Group Agreements so helpful to leaders? Imagine leading a team that includes a team member who is a challenge. She’s extremely intelligent and follows the rules, but she shows up as defensive in meetings. Her presence has a negative impact on team dynamics.
Yet, it’s hard to give her feedback against a specific skill area or core value because she’s a great performer. However, if you have agreements in place, you can refer to them.
For example, some teams include in their agreements Steven Covey's rule, "Seek first to understand then be understood." In a feedback conversation, you can frame your observation in terms of this agreement. Like competencies and core values, the agreements are something tangible to refer to during feedback conversations.
Group Agreements: At Work and Beyond
If you know me, you know my motto, “Leadership at work and beyond.” The skills we develop as leaders are transferrable to many settings outside of the workplace, including the home. With some tweaks, e.g., display on the refrigerator door vs. on a PowerPoint, you can leverage agreements for your family.
One day when my boys were young, I came home from facilitating a workshop and had all my supplies in tow. I was holding flip chart paper with the words “Ground Rules” at the top. My oldest son who loved structure asked about this and was curious what I was doing creating rules with people I work with. I explained to him that we established the rules of how we want to work together before we start a workshop. He immediately then asked, “Can we do rules for our family?” Of course! Why didn’t I think of that? So, that week we sat down and came up with our family rules that included “Talk nicely,” “Recover when you make a mistake,” and “Care about others.”
These rules reflected how we wanted and expected to interact with each other as a family. My husband and I always had these expectations, but we never thought to discuss them with our kids and write them out. We selected some rules that we knew our boys needed to work on and some that we were already doing well. The rules applied to everyone, not only the kids.
We created “Spy Journals” and everyone was asked to spy on each other during the day to catch others living out the family rules. If you saw something, you wrote it down on a piece of paper and then we read them to each other before bedtime. We would describe the behavior and what rule it aligned to. One time I remember writing, “I saw Jack get an extra bowl for Drew during breakfast, and that shows he cares about others.” Instead of empty praise or kudos, we wrote down what we actually saw and connected the dots to the family rules.
Although agreements are helpful when having to give constructive feedback, they work best when you “catch others doing something right” and this applies at home or at work. Agreements should not be used to shame or punish others, but rather leveraged to reinforce the positive behaviors you want to see repeated.
How to Get Started
While it works best to establish the norms early on as a group is forming, you can also introduce the concept after a team is established. The important thing to remember is that the agreements surface through discussion and input. To gain buy-in, they cannot be imposed by the organization or a leader.
I often work with groups in designing norms and have jotted down some common agreements that work for many groups. If you decide to work with your team to establish them, you could refer to these and see what resonates. Then edit, add, delete as needed.
Group Agreements – Examples
Agreements for Virtual Teams
If you have experience with Group Agreements, drop me a line below to let me know what unique guidelines you have established, and how they have helped your team!