Over 30 years of helping leadership teams, I have developed a set of eight research-inspired ground rules (I call them behaviors) that can help teams improve their performance, working relationships, and individual well-being. (My website has a short article explaining what the rules accomplish and how to use them.)
State views and ask genuine questions. This enables the team to shift from monologues and arguments to a conversation in which members can understand everyone’s point of view and be curious about the differences in their views.
Share all relevant information. This enables the team to develop a comprehensive, common set of information with which to solve problems and make decisions.
Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean. This ensures that all team members are using the same words to mean the same thing.
Explain reasoning and intent. This enables members to understand how others reached their conclusions and see where team members’ reasoning differs.
Focus on interests, not positions. By moving from arguing about solutions to identifying needs that must be met in order to solve a problem, you reduce unproductive conflict and increase your ability to develop solutions that the full team is committed to.
Test assumptions and inferences. This ensures that the team is making decisions with valid information rather than with members’ private stories about what other team members believe and what their motives are.
Jointly design next steps. This ensures that everyone is committed to moving forward together as a team.
Discuss undiscussable issues. This ensures that the team addresses the important but undiscussed issues that are hindering its results and that can only be resolved in a team meeting.
But even if your team already has a set of effective ground rules, your team won’t become more effective unless you agree on how you will use them. Here’s how to do that:
Explicitly agree on the ground rules and what each one means. A set of behaviors aren’t your team’s ground rules until everyone on the team agrees to use them. The term ground rules was originally used to describe the rules of baseball that teams agreed to use in a particular venue, or grounds. Those rules were — and still are — necessary for playing baseball fairly across venues that are not exactly the same. Similarly, when your team members take time to discuss and develop a common understanding of what your rules mean, you increase the chance that the rules will be implemented consistently and effectively in different situations.
Develop a team mindset that’s congruent with the ground rules. The behaviors your team uses are driven by the mindset (that is, values and assumptions) you operate from. If you adopt effective ground rules but operate from an ineffective mindset, the ground rules won’t work. For example, if you assume that you are right about Bob being off topic, you won’t test your inference — you’ll just tell him to get back on topic. But if you assume that you might be missing something that Bob sees, you will be curious about the connection Bob sees between his comment and the topic at hand.
Agree that everyone is responsible for helping each other use the ground rules. Teams are too complex to expect that the formal leader alone can identify every time a team member is acting at odds with a ground rule. In effective teams, all members share this responsibility, meaning teams should agree on how individuals will intervene when they see others not using a ground rule.
Discuss how you are using the ground rules and how to improve. Take five minutes at the end of each team meeting to discuss where you used the ground rules well and where you can improve. If you find yourself having these conversations outside the team, you’re not building a better team.
Ground rules are powerful tools for improving team process. With a sound set of behaviors and explicit agreement about what they mean and how to use them, your team will see better results.