Use ground rules or shared agreements to accelerate group results

Approximate reading time: 10 minutes

Imagine trying to drive in a different country without any knowledge of their speed limits or road rules and on highways and streets with no traffic lights or signage.  Mayhem and accidents would likely abound.

Yet something similar happens daily in hundreds of meetings when individuals from different departments, teams, communities, or organizations convene.  Lacking shared “rules of the road,” people engage as they see fit, often resulting in unproductive conversations, inadequate input, and ineffective decisions.

Defining norms for discussions and decisions helps people understand this is who we aspire to be and how we will engage with each other.  Shared agreements for engagement help create a more equitable, inclusive, and safe climate for individuals to freely speak their truths. 

“To create learning organizations, we must understand the underlying agreements we have made about how we will be together.”

Margaret Wheatley, at the Systems Thinking in Action Conference

These agreements are called many things including group norms, ground rules, and participation guidelines.  This essay uses various terms interchangeably. I favor shared agreements because it stresses that these are commitments that participants share. Regardless of what they are called, I find them most effective when they combine succinct written principles with behavioral examples (either documented or simply discussed).

Let’s explore three critical questions that facilitators must answer to effectively use shared agreements: 

  1. Will you provide a draft set of agreements or work with participants to create their own? 

  2. How will you and the participants reference and use the agreements and hold individuals accountable for honoring them?

  3. How and when will you help the group assess behavioral alignment with the agreements?  

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1: Provide draft or facilitate development?

Whichever approach you pursue, participant ownership of the agreements is key. As business author Patrick Lencioni notes in his book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business,  “If people don’t weigh in, they can’t buy in.”

Considerations for which approach to select include:

  • the existing familiarity and trust among participants

  • the work the group is to do and the desired results

  • how frequently the group will interact over time

  • the needed amount of weighing in and buying in, and

  • the time available to spend on this effort

My loose rule of thumb?  The more ongoing the group, the more I'll go on about norms and likely work with them to develop their own list of shared agreements. I find no more than 7-8 agreements works best, but your mileage may vary. Here are some sample agreements from three useful sources.

Option 1: Provide draft agreements for consideration.

When time is limited, you might share a draft of ground rules and then invite additions or modifications before asking participants to individually affirm their commitment to the final list.  The last step helps prevent individual compliance to your rules rather than ownership of and commitment to the group's agreements

Some organizations or communities have agreed upon core values that you could help a group modify for use as discussion ground rules.  Ask the group to consider the reason they’ve convened (strategic planning session, all-staff retreat, et al) and

  • how these values would show up in action in their work (surfacing the behavioral applications);

  • if any additional norms or agreements need to be made .

Option 2: Facilitate the group developing its own agreements

Developing ground rules sometimes provokes hesitance or mild resistance. Some participants see them as unnecessary or “touchy-feely.”  Others previously have experienced significant time invested in developing shared norms that subsequently were rarely referenced or applied, something I think of as facilitator malpractice.

To address these issues, I generally begin with a very brief discussion of the following question: When you've been part of a group that produced some amazing results, what helped make that possible?  Inevitably, individuals often cite clear roles and responsibilities, shared goals or direction, and an understanding of how to work with each other.  

These responses naturally lead to the next question: Given the work that we are to do, the results you wish to achieve, and the existing relationships you have with each other, what agreements or ground rules would help ensure better discussions and decisions?  I believe the initial preface is important because it acknowledges that the norms are to help support the work and achieve the desired outcomes.They are an intentional means to the end.

Three common ways to develop shared agreements are:

  1. brainstorming as a large group.

  2. small group brainstorming followed by large group discussion and selection.

  3. individual brainstorming and noting ideas in writing that paticipants then cluster by common themes for large group discussion prior to finalizing a list of ground rules.

You could begin the process prior to the first meeting or conversation, anonymously collecting and aggregating individuals' ideas via an online tool like SurveyMonkey or JotForm. When doing so, I've often generated a word cloud using an online tool like EdWordle to help the group see some of the values and norms it is suggesting.  A group whose members already have some familiarity with each other could use an online Wiki or channel to draft their shared agreements outside of an actual meeting or workshop.

2. Agreement application and accountability

While generating the group norms is important, simply noting them on a flipchart without ever referring to them again does a tremendous disservice to their value, as well as the group's development.   Draw on them whenever useful, but definitely reference them to help recreate the safe climate when the conversation temperature increases: “I can tell people have some strong opinions on this topic.  Before we go any further, let's quickly revisit how we agreed to talk with each other.”

To further instill ownership among members in ongoing teams or work groups, I often ask every individual to volunteer to be the "conscience" or “caretaker” for one of the agreements, committing to thinking about that one throughout their time together and helping call attention to it when individuals apply it well or stray from its possibilities.  Now everyone has a specific vested interest in the agreements.

Finally, holding individuals accountable for applying the shared agreements should neither be your sole responsibility as the facilitator nor should it have an overly punitive tone. Like the proverbial “swear jar,” some groups experience success with creating playful enforcement mechanisms that may even produce a humorous response. Get creative!

3. Assessing performance and alignment

Over time individuals and groups can progress from shared agreements being a new habit they seek to embrace to an effective operating system deeply embedded in their muscle memory.  Transitioning between those two states requires periodic self-assessment and goal-setting.

How often you might facilitate some an evaluation again depends on how regularly the group may interact.  If I am facilitating an association board of directors that meets only three times a year, I’d likely have them self-assess at the end of each gathering.  A staff management team that meets bi-weekly or a committee that meets monthly might only require quarterly assessments.

Regardless of frequency, I generally invite three levels of reflection:

  1. individuals assess their own behavioral alignment with each agreement (how well did I do?) and identify areas for improvement.

  2. the group assesses its cumulative behavioral alignment with each agreement (how well did we do?) and identifies areas for improvement.

  3. the group identifying anything additional I can do as facilitator to support them being aligned with the shared agreements

The next time the group convenes circle back to the output of this assessment and remind them of its results and their stated intentions for improvement.

Bottom line?

In order for us to successfully do things with each other, it helps to first clarify how we want to be with each other.  Creating shared agreements is one simple tool that almost immediately leads to better discussions and better decisions.


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