Why I Don’t Recommend Ground Rules For Workplace Teams

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I start every new term with a “mutual hopes and expectations” exercise for my new mediation grad students. I set aside time in the first class to ask what expectations they have of each other and of me. After giving them some “think time” to draft a short list, I ask them to share the most important expectations from their lists. We usually have a robust and informative discussion out of it.

I then share how we might all best engage the learning experience in my classroom. It’s an invitation, not a list of rules to live and learn by. I don’t use formal classroom ground rules because I have other tools for managing difficult classroom behaviors that arise, borrowed from my mediator’s toolbox.

I also want to signal, from day one, that I expect the best from my students, and I believe ground rules imply that I expect problems.

I rarely use formal ground rules in settings into which I step as a mediator, conflict consultant or trainer, for the same reasons. I’d much rather assume reasonable behavior from my clients (and my expectations are usually met…hmmm) and step in as needed to support the quick change in a behavior if something goes temporarily south. I also doubt that imposing behavioral ground rules on my clients has any real likelihood of working. For instance, just because someone tells you never to interrupt in a stressful meeting, does that mean you can magically stop?

While the idea of setting group ground rules has gained a lot of traction in workplaces, I suspect those rule-making has become so rote now as to be practically useless in workplace teams. The way teams co-create how they’ll work best together doesn’t grow from a list of rules. And the way workplace teams and committees sort out their interactions best doesn’t come from a list that’s created only when they first begin work and left on the wall to yellow.

How about using group norms in place of ground rules? Group norms are co-created, with time for consideration (instead of an exercise to be gotten through) and updated as the team’s interactions grow organically over time. Group norms suggest, “This is what we believe will help create robust dialogue in our group,” while ground rules suggest, “Don’t violate these rules or you’re not a team player.”

Group norms are an invitation, ground rules an order.

Done well, group norms are behavioral and clear. Instead of, “Be respectful” (a vague rule), a good behavioral norm might be, “We want to balance sharing air time with letting individuals complete their thoughts fully.”

Some of my favorite group norms are below. I don’t impose them. I don’t use the same ones with every group. Some groups already have their own, whether they’re conscious of them or not-in those instances, my job is to help make them visible for consideration. I use the group norms as conversation starters, not end points:

– Curiosity is always welcomed. Ask questions born out of genuine curiosity and the desire to understand the other’s perspective.

– It’s OK to disagree. You don’t need to share another’s thinking about everything we talk about. How you challenge will can the difference between stubborn debate and real dialogue.

– Try it on” before reacting. Avoid an immediate “yes, but” reaction to new ideas and risk letting an idea sink in before accepting or rejecting.

– It’s OK to change your mind. Everyone has the right to alter an opinion without needing to defend or explain the change.

– Speak from your own perspective. Who really knows what “everyone thinks”? Let’s create dialogue where everyone can speak for themselves.

These invitations can work beautifully with groups of all kinds.