Making Ground Rules Stick

Dec 31, 2010 3 Comments by

In an earlier post I shared some effective ground rules that your team can use to get along and be productive.  I’m sure many of you have more good team guidelines that have worked for you – and I’d encourage you to agree on a similar list when you kick off your next team project.

Having Rules Can Be Good; Following Them Is Even Better: No set of ground rules is worth the paper it’s printed on if the team doesn’t follow them.  As I’ve said, I have been the author of ground rules that were uniformly ignored and I suspect the team’s results suffered.  So here are a few tips to help your team USE the set of rules they agree to. I’d call this collection “a list of ground rules for ground rules”:

Involve the Citizens: People are far more likely to follow your rules that they have had a hand in creating them.  I often use a portion of the team kickoff to facilitate a brainstorm exercise and then get agreement on our initial ground rules.  As my Dad used to say, asking people what makes sense to them just makes good sense.

Write them down: Going through the process of creating ground rules for your group can be a team-building exercise in itself.  Capturing your mutual agreements in writing is also a great way to make them real and tangible. Go ahead and make a poster – just make sure people read it from time to time!

Understand them. Make sure people know the rules and what they mean. On some teams we’ve actually spent 1-2 minutes of each week’s team meeting discussing one of the ground rules and how well we’re doing on applying the rule so far.

Have your leaders emulate them: Nothing changes people’s priorities faster than seeing the boss start to demonstrate a new expected behavior. This is especially true in the case of team rules. I once had a boss literally read down the list of ground rules and ask his direct reports if they felt HE was following them! After a lively discussion, he committed to fixing his errant ways and made it clear that his team would be expected to do so as well. Needless to say, that team was fairly effective…

Keep your list short: It’s hard to even remember a list of more than a few rules, yet alone follow them! I encourage teams to have no more than 5-10 ground rules (You can have more, but that’s just a number I’ve found is easy to work with.) You might want to combine a few of them to keep your list in that range.

Reinforce those caught in the act of following the ground rules.  I often include an element of reward and recognition in my projects just to keep things fun and keep people positively engaged.  As part of this recognition, I also like to build an inexpensive way to recognize people for following the ground rules. It can be mentioning a person’s positive actions in a staff meeting, visiting their desk to personally thank them or something as elaborate as a hand-written note. Each time I have used this approach, it has paid great dividends in terms of effective team behaviors.

Note: I must say that not all companies perceive rewards and recognition programs as

Recognition can be as easy as 1 - 2 - 3 - 4: Try This: 1. Come along side the employee. 2. Raise your right arm to the employee's right shoulder. 3. Lightly pat the employee's shoulder to indicate your appreciation. 4. Repeat often.

having great value. But the good ones do. If your company’s culture requires that you can only start an inexpensive recognition program or you have to keep it within the boundaries of your team, do it. I’m telling you now – rewarding people for positive behavior is nearly always cheaper than the alternative.

Summary: As with all good ideas, the whole ground rules thing only works if your team actually USES them.  For most teams in most organizations, it will be tough to commit to following more than a handful of ground rules consistently – but if they do, there are significant benefits to be realized. Consider some of these suggestions to ensure that your ground rules don’t end up on the dust bin of disuse.


Question for Chatter:

  1. What other ways have you seen to reinforce the use of good team ground rules?
  2. What can you do when teams violate their own ground rules?

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Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Team Dynamics

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I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

3 Responses to “Making Ground Rules Stick”

  1. Gilbert says:

    Fine rules they ought to work. How can I adapt them to my LI group?

    Thanks to help me Steve! I’d be glad to accept your suggestions.

  2. Jim Yates says:

    Thanks Steve – Both postings are very useful reminders of how to encourage good team behavio[u]r. Your last post also distils many of the key features of encouraging any change process. Involvement, living the change and reinforcement being crucial. Your ideas echo some of the comments I made in a recent blogpost

    I’ve found that setting the ground rules can be an excellent activity for the initial [or other early] team briefing session – asking the team what they think constitutes good behaviour and producing 7+/-2 key points from the discussion – as you say, this gets buy-in and starts building a shared way of working.

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