What Are Your Team’s Ground Rules?

To achieve team success you must establish and maintain ground rules.


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In last month’s column, I discussed the four stages of team development. Understanding that all teams will go through forming, storming, norming and performing stages is critical to getting the best performance from teams. This month, I will discuss another important factor in achieving team success—the need to establish and maintain ground rules that support effective team interaction.

Well-thought-out ground rules increase the likelihood that a team will function as a cohesive unit instead of as a group of individuals. However, if a team is to adopt ground rules, it must be willing to enforce them throughout the life of the team. This requires periodically evaluating team performance and modifying behaviors when needed.

In a prior column (see April 2008), I focused on one of the most important ground rules a team can adopt—the need for meeting timeliness. All meetings should begin and end on time as a courtesy to all members of the team. However, there are other ground rules that can improve the team’s dynamics and ultimately increase the likelihood of success in whatever task it undertakes. Some of these ground rules are discussed here:

• Come to meetings prepared. All teams must meet, and those meetings often require that certain tasks be completed beforehand. Being prepared means meeting commitments, or even assisting others in meeting their commitments. Often, a team’s ultimate success depends on how effectively its members do what they say they will do. If some unforeseen problem prevents a task’s completion, then the responsible team member must advise the team leader, who can then decide whether the meeting should be cancelled or postponed. Barring this, the message is simple: For the good of the team, come prepared!

• Be considerate of others. This is one of the most basic ground rules because it demonstrates respect for others on the team. Everyone should be given the opportunity to speak and offer ideas or opinions. Others may not always agree with these ideas, but they must be willing to listen respectfully.

It is frustrating to be interrupted while you are speaking. Unfortunately, we have all committed this offense even though we know it is wrong. (Sometimes, we will even preface our interruption with, “I don’t mean to interrupt you, but…”) Just being aware of the frustration that interruptions can cause is a good first step to curbing interruptions and maintaining team unity.

• Stick to the topic at hand (and be brief). If you think about it, much of the time wasted during meetings involves discussion of unrelated matters such as other projects, problems in other areas and other tangents. If everyone makes an effort to discuss only meeting-related topics, then these meetings will be more productive and the team will have a greater chance of achieving success sooner. Of course, a meeting agenda can keep discussion on track, but periodic refocusing during the meeting may also be necessary.

Keeping discussions brief will also help the team. We have all heard people making the same points numerous times and in numerous ways. (They may preface this repetition with comments such as, “I know I have said this before, but…”) If we can make our points briefly, but with conviction, we will reduce the risk of having others on the team “tune out.”

• Give everyone the opportunity to speak. Giving everyone on the team the opportunity to speak is a way to ensure involvement of all team members and support of decisions made. Not everyone will speak on every topic. However, if everyone truly feels they have been given an opportunity to offer comments and suggestions, there is a greater likelihood they will feel they are part of the team and be willing to speak up when appropriate.

• Make decisions through consensus. Consensus can best be defined as collective opinion. This is generally a majority opinion, but a majority that is more than “just over half.” Whereas a unanimous agreement is the ultimate that can be hoped for on a team, such agreement is rare. Successful teams will take the time to minimize differences and find a middle ground to achieve consensus. In this way, those not in complete agreement at the start will have seen compromise put to use to reach a final decision they can support.

Consider incorporating some of these ground rules into your organization’s teams. They, along with any others that your teams may adopt, can help any team function more effectively and produce better-than-expected results.