Team agreements: A key to high-performing, happy teams

Whether it's an operating agreement between startup founders, a safe communications agreement within a team, or ground rules for a project committee -- every team has agreements around how they will work together.

For most teams these agreements are unspoken, unwritten and un-negotiated, nonetheless they become the rules of behavior and are binding on team members. They are "the way things are done around here." They may not be in the policies and procedures manual, but it doesn't take long for new team members to figure out what is rewarded and what is punished.

It’s only a short leap to imagine the energy and productivity drain on a team member trying to navigate this uncharted territory. And only a step or two farther to predict the potential conflict within a team whose “the way things are done” rules may not be serving the group and, worse, damaging its performance capability.

In our experience most teams benefit greatly by having explicit team agreements, not only to avoid conflict but also to be able to hit the ground running with clarity and confidence. Our conflict advisory (on-call ombuds) work includes facilitating teams in creating their team agreements, with training and team coaching adapted from the excellent work of Team Coaching International.

How to create team agreements that lead to high performance

1) Team agreements may be made by the team alone or with the help of a facilitator, but the most important factor to get buy-in is that the team creates its agreement itself, for itself. The best team agreements are those which:

  • Are thought through together (even if working in remote locations)
  • Make sure that all voices are heard and included
  • Listen actively for what is really being said and asked for by each person, and by the team
  • Keep the agreements short and to the point
  • Ensure that each member believes in the agreement and is willing to incorporate it into their team norm
  • Realize the agreement is dynamic, and build in capacity to revisit frequently

2) Once you design a process that meets these goals, outline the context and parameters of what your team needs right now. For example, are you creating an agreement:

  • For a short-term project the team is working on?
  • About giving feedback and critique?
  • To establish safety around communications?
  • To address concerns around diversity or workplace politics?

3)  Ask your team these core questions (adapted to and appropriate for your particular situation), capturing the answers in a way that everyone can understand them at the moment and in the future. Follow up with questions to surface any underlying feelings and concerns (here is where a professional facilitator can be valuable):

  1. For this team to be successful and effective, what do you need to count on from each other?
  2. In order for this team to excel, what do you want for the team?
  3. (Building on the previous two) What agreements can we come to that will make success possible?

4. Formulate a list of agreements, discuss, pare down, get agreement on the results. They can be specific, behavioral, qualitative. An agreement item might look like these:

  • We show up on time.
  • Mistakes are human. We look for the learning.
  • We encourage risk-taking.
  • We value diversity, invite multiple points of view, look for the contrary or unpopular position in order to maximize our creativity as a team.
  • We can disagree all we want as a team inside the conference room. When we interact outside the room we present one aligned position.

How is your organization working with your teams and their agreements? Share your answers in the comments below. If you’d like to talk more about embracing constructive conflict, please feel free to schedule a conversation with us here.