Create an Agreement with Your Team: An Excerpt from Steffan's Book

Learn concrete ways to create working agreements with your team or with individuals for better workplace collaboration and team development in your organization.

Steffan Surdek
May 27, 2024
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This blog post is an excerpt from my book, The Way of the Co-Creative Leader. Full of insights, knowledge and real-life stories from my years of organizational leadership coaching, the book is a deep dive into co-creative leadership and the five key skills it entails.

This excerpt is at the end of Chapter 12: Tools for Building Capacity. Building capacity is the third skill of co-creative leadership. Co-creative leaders understand that they need to help team members build new skills in order to build a high-performing team or organization. They develop their people and create sustainable change in their organizations.

In this chapter, I explain how creating agreements with your team is a valuable way to start building their capacity.

Get your copy of the book, available for purchase on FriesenPress and Amazon.ca.


Create an Agreement with an Individual

The most basic way to start building the capacity of someone on your team is to have a clear agreement with them that you are working on something together. A verbal agreement is more than enough here; you do not need a formal signed agreement by any means.

The idea here is to have a conversation with the person about what you will be helping them work on. The agreement is about having clarity and having the person opt in.

This idea of creating an agreement can apply between a manager and an employee but can also apply between colleagues. Imagine you are a senior employee helping someone on your team to learn something new.

Having a clear agreement with this person gives you permission to regularly talk about that topic with them, offer them help, and give them feedback when relevant.

Here is an example of how I would approach this with one of my clients. One of the things I work on with people is helping them prepare and facilitate group workshops. Upfront, we would have a discussion about the kind of help they want me to provide.

Should I co-create the workshop with them, or should I just ask them questions to help them work through it?

When they facilitate the workshop, do they want me to be an observer or a helper? What is the verbal cue they will give me if they want me to intervene? What kind of feedback do they want from me during and after the workshop?

We play around with this. Things can always change, but we get clarity up front. We both know what to expect from one another when we work on the workshop together.

Create an Agreement with a Team

Creating an agreement also applies to when you work with a team. For instance, if you wanted your team to try something new in a meeting, you could begin the meeting by saying something like:

"Today, let's try something different to learn how to collaborate better together. Instead of just putting our individual ideas out there without listening to each other, let's try to pick one as a starting point and build on it together."

Or…

"Can we agree to hold back on the sarcasm today? I know we like to kid around and have fun, but could we explore doing this without the sarcasm to see if it makes a difference?"

When you attempt something like this, the key is to have a moment toward the end of the meeting when you take time to talk about what you tried out. What did the team learn?

You can create an agreement that lasts for longer than a single meeting, too. For example, you may want to agree on how you want to behave with each other as a team. What are acceptable behaviors? What are unacceptable behaviors?

The trick when building an agreement like this is not to assume a single conversation will make the agreement happen right away. In the example above, team members may need to learn to call each other out when someone does something the team agreed to be unacceptable. Team members also need to learn to receive such feedback in a constructive way.

It is not about getting it right and being perfect, it is about being imperfect and being able to talk about it in a healthy way.

Sometimes, people will refer to such things as team rules. I very much prefer the term working agreement. The key point about such agreements is that the team is responsible for holding each other accountable for making what they agreed to happen.

Expect this to take a bit of time and teach your team to forgive each other when mistakes happen. The journey of learning to work together is as important as reaching the goal.

When you have an agreement like this, you ideally keep it alive and visible in some way. Maybe you talk about it in your team meetings, asking each other to give examples of times when people were living up to the agreement in the past week.

Let me give you a concrete example.

I was working with a client, and we had a weekly transformation meeting with the entire management team. We built a working agreement specifically for this weekly meeting that, among other things, had the following points:

  • Phones should be upside down on the table
  • Computers should be closed unless you are presenting
  • No snide remarks
  • Respect the ideas of others

As the meeting was going on, one of the senior leaders had her phone in her hand and was texting someone. As a group, we saw her focus was on her phone more than the meeting.

The other coach in the room was sitting next to me and whispered, "Do you see Karla is texting someone right now?"

"Yes, I do. It is clear in the working agreement that this is a no-no. Let's see what people say."

Some people were starting to look at her and then at us, rolling their eyes, but no one dared say anything.

"Steffan, they are looking at us. It is as if they are expecting us to say something."

"Agreed. It is interesting. Let's wait a bit to see what happens."

I noticed that at this point, no one else had their phones in their hands, but some people were starting to think that maybe they could do the same as Karla. As I saw someone reach for their phone, I called Karla out.

"Excuse me, Karla, I have a quick question. Did we not build a working agreement last week?"

"Well, uh, yes."

"What did we say about smartphones in the meeting?

Karla took a peek at the working agreement on the wall and blushed.

"We said cell phones should be turned over on the table."

"What are you doing right now with your cell phone?"

"I am texting a colleague. This is important though."

"I can understand it is important, but did you tell us about it up front?"

"No, I did not."

"Did you notice the impact this is having on the meeting? This is distracting people. They are all looking at you on your phone texting, and no one seems comfortable enough to tell you this."

"I am sorry. I really did not notice."

"I have a question for the rest of the team. Why did no one speak up? You could all see her on her phone. Some of you were looking at us coaches to say something instead."

"Karla is our senior director, Steffan. She is in a position of authority. What if we upset her by trying to hold her to these rules?"

"But we agreed to this, including Karla. It should be OK to talk to her. Karla, do you agree?"

"I do. I expect this team to be able to talk to me. I may not always like it, but I want to hear it."

The following week, before the meeting, I had a quick chat with Karla. I asked her to intentionally take out her phone at some point in the session and to start texting someone, just to see what would happen. She laughed and said, "Sure, let's try that."

About fifteen minutes into the meeting, she picked up her phone, looked at it for a few seconds, and started a text exchange.

Initially, we could see people noticing her picking up her phone. After a few minutes, once again, the same people turned to look at us to act. We smiled back and gave them a sign that they should be the ones saying something.

Finally, someone spoke up.

"Uh, Karla, we agreed to no phones or texting during the meeting, right?"

"Yes, we did. Something just came in, and I took it by force of habit. Sorry about that. Thank you for telling me, I will make an effort for the rest of the meeting not to touch it."

And just like that, people had an example of someone calling Karla out and having her react positively. It created more comfort for others to do the same in future meetings—and to call out their colleagues as well.


Are you ready to elevate your leadership to the next level?

If you're looking to transform your team's dynamics, enhance collaboration, or reduce conversational debt, I'm here to guide you. With over a decade of experience in leadership coaching, I've dedicated my career to helping executives and management teams unlock their full potential. My approach is centered around the concept of Co-Creative Leadership, focusing on fostering a culture of collaboration and action-oriented learning.

Contact me for a consultation, visit our Coaching page to learn more about my services, and check out my Speaking page to explore how I can inspire your audience with one of my talks.