People often come into teams with different experiences and expectations. This often leads to conflicts and miscommunication. Use this simple process, an excerpt from Great Work, to head off team troubles.
One of the first tasks of the team should be to establish a set of written Team Agreements. These help clarify expectations, manage cultural differences, reduce conflicts and provide a way for teams to resolve them.
Here’s a process I like to use.
- Explain the purpose of the exercise is to create a set of agreements that will help the team operate well together.
- Ask each person on the team to list a ‘pet peeve,’ something that drives them crazy when working on a team. I like this because you learn a lot about the values of each team member and potentially their fears. Alternatively, you can brainstorm common problems the team members have seen teams struggle with.
- Group the pet peeves or team challenges if necessary into similar categories.
- For each pet peeve or challenge, come up with an agreement for how to avoid it and also to deal with it if it happens.
Common areas that team agreements cover include:
- How to communicate between meetings. For example, by email, text, or conference calls. Expected turn around time to respond (eg, how often to check emails)
- How to deal with time. What is considered ‘starting the meeting on time?’ What are the expectations around commitments and deadlines? If you are starting to worry that you can’t meet a deadline, what should you do?
- How to maintain a fair and balanced workload. What to do when you have too much or too little?
- How to resolve conflicts. Usually this includes a set of escalating steps. This can vary a lot by culture.
- How to run team meetings. What roles (eg, facilitator, time keeper, historian) will you have and do they rotate? Are there standing agenda items? (See Check Ins and Outcome Focused Agendas.) If you have team members who speak different languages, you may need an agreement around what language is used so that some team members don’t feel isolated.
- How to assign responsibilities. Do people get to volunteer? If someone wants to build their skills, can the team find a way to help them do that without undermining the quality of the work?
Sample team agreements
Some team agreements I found useful:
- Those who show up have the power. (Teams can waste time rehashing decisions if someone was missing from an earlier meeting. This agreement forces team members to show up or if they can’t be present, to send their input along in advance. This implies that meeting agendas are available in advance.)
- Assume a positive intent, until proven otherwise. (People have a tendency to attribute negative meaning or intention to someone’s actions when it’s not what they would like: ‘He’s trying to get back at me,’ or ‘She doesn’t think I know what I’m doing.’ Instead this agreement asks the team members to assume that people are usually acting in good faith. If you’re unhappy with an action or behavior, start out by assuming it’s a misunderstanding or a result of having different information.
- Before we make a decision, we will decide how we will decide. (As I discussed in Chapter 6: Balance Rights and Responsibilities, not all decisions should be made by consensus.)
How to use the Team Agreements
Make the Team Agreements a living document. Refer to it often in meetings. For example, you might at the end of the meeting ask the team which agreements they exemplified and which one they most need to work on. When problems come up, refer to the Team Agreements for guidance on how to deal with it. When unforeseen problems occur, create a new team agreement to deal with it.