Updated July 2021
We often join a team and assume that all the members agree with our assumptions about what’s acceptable and what’s not. But they probably don’t. I’ve been on long-standing committees where certain behavior was accepted even though most members grumbled about it. This resulted in a low level of commitment to the committee and its goals.
Taking the time to talk about our assumptions and what our team’s norms should be can save time and accelerate results down the line. Setting ground rules is part of setting expectations for team performance. Meeting these expectations will build trust and improve accountability.
Ground rules, or rules of engagement, are typically discussed and agreed to early during the formation of a team. The rules should be reviewed periodically and renegotiated whenever someone new joins the team. They should also be reviewed if the team isn’t functioning well. Consider posting these rules or guidance in a shared location, or post them in chat before a video conference.
Our experience from putting teams through The Five Behaviors Team Development is that this step of team formation is often skipped. People make assumptions and inevitably other people do not meet them. Healthier groups might tweak a few assumed rules. More dysfunctional teams might surprise you by suggesting rules that seem obvious, such as members will not publicly badmouth other team members.
Ask your team about the best experiences they’ve had on the team and what unwritten rules may have contributed. For example, teams might find that they collaborated really well when using Teams or Slack when everyone was give 24 hours to respond. Or that turning cameras off during a portion of a check-in meeting actually helped them pay better attention.
Also consider how your organization’s or team’s values can be applied in your ground rules.
Here are sample rules adopted by teams:
- Meetings will start and end on time.
- If unable to attend, members will send a representative, inform the team, and request agenda items be deferred or submit comments if necessary.
- Meetings will follow an agenda prepared by the leader or approved by members a day before the meeting.
- Video meetings require everyone to have their cameras turned on.
- Agenda items will address team goals, health and functioning of the team, and progress reports.
- Members will complete tasks they’ve committed to.
- Members will state their views and ask genuine questions to gain better understanding.
- Members will alert the group to any task or project that will be early, late, better or worse that expected.
- Meetings will begin with stating outcomes/goals/changes each member is excited about and one item the team could improve upon.
- Only one person will speak at a time.
- No one will check their phone during the meeting.
- Members will listen actively and test their assumptions.
- Members will be present physically and mentally or excuse themselves.
- All team members will speak their minds.
- When anyone feels we are off-track, we will refer back to our agreed-upon key performance indicators and our shared purpose.
- Sources of conflict will be mined and addressed.
- Conflict will address ideas rather than personalities.
- Members can ask for discussion items to be moved to the “parking lot” to be addressed later after more information is gathered, a missing member is present, or the timing is better.
- There will be no side conversations or gossip.
- These ground rules will be reviewed at a specific date to be revised as needed.
- Taking a long lunch means working later in the afternoon.
- Members will share the airtime.
- Members will share their unique perspectives.
- Members will share their experience (not others).
- Members will speak honestly.
- Members will listen from the “We” but speak from the “I.”
- Assumptions will be brought forward to be affirmed or challenged.
- Silence of members will be assumed to signal agreement.
- Members will be courageous.
- Members will not shy away from conflict.
- Members will hold each other accountable.
- Everyone is responsible for keeping documentation updated.
- Standard operating procedures are open for discussion, but not to changes before manager approval.
- Milestones will be celebrated.
- Limited cursing is allowable.
- Failure is acceptable.
Possible rules for virtual teams:
- Project-related communication will happen on a specific platform.
- Informal or team-building communication will happen on a specific platform.
- We will give praise to each other on a specific platform.
- Our default time zone is ___.
- If some of the team meets in person we will offer others a summary of our discussion or invite participation via ___.
- Long email chains will be avoided by either initiating a call or starting a new email.
- We will not use BCC (blind copy) emails.
- Emojis are encouraged; large animated gifs are not.
- Virtual video meetings will be limited to one hour.
- Cameras will be turned on, but mics muted during our weekly meeting.
- Status meetings will be by phone only.
- We will show we are away from our desk or do not want to be interrupted by ___.
- Vacation or personal time off is tracked in this location, but a week before we will send a reminder by email with a subject line of name/out dates.
Possible rules or expectations for the facilitator or group leader:
- Prepares meeting room and makes it physically comfortable.
- Shares and enforces meeting ground rules with participants.
- Communicates with respect, and promotes clarity and inclusion.
- Acts as the neutral person.
- Solicits agenda items two days before meeting.
- Provides support materials necessary to bring new members up to date.
- Maintains a positive group atmosphere.
- Allows time for consideration; doesn’t fill the silence.
- Avoids lengthy comments.
- Does not give verbal rewards for desirable answers.
- Affirms the group and its individuals.
- Supports the group, but also confronts difficult issues.
- Shows patience with people, but also an urgency for achievement.
- Will present our ground rules again for revision.
Did You Get My Slack/Email/Text? Harvard Business Review, May 2021
Write Down Your Team’s Unwritten Rules, Harvard Business Review, Oct. 2020
Has Your Remote Team Defined Ground Rules Yet? Here’s How, Forbes, March 2020
Did You Get My Slack/Email/Text? Harvard Business Review, May 2020
by Kristeen Bullwinkle