“A team isn’t a bunch of kids out to win; a team is something you belong to, something you feel, something you have to earn.”
Perhaps you’re familiar with this quote from the great philosopher, Coach Gordon Bombay of The Mighty Ducks. No? Well, suffice to say, he had quite the team challenge on his hands: managing a rag-tag group with their own motivations, insecurities, and misgivings, coming together to [spoiler alert] eventually become more than the sum of their parts.
If that battle sounds familiar to you, you’re in good company. Classic sports team stories like this pull on our heartstrings because their challenges are universal. We’ve all felt the tensions inherent in teamwork, even at work:
- Individuals working in siloes, hesitating to ask one another for help.
- Conflict avoidance or playing the blame game.
- Or are they simply not delivering as effectively and efficiently as you would like?
There is a reason that these are common team dysfunctions. It’s difficult to induce the sense of belonging that successful teams (and Coach Bombay) put into practice. When the work gets messy, complicated, and intense, leaders often ask us to help them re-set and foster a more collaborative and committed environment.
We suggest these teams create a compact. A team compact is a living, dynamic agreement among members that provides a common understanding of how individuals commit to working with one another. Creating a compact requires the team to discuss what’s important for working together and to establish your own set of rules and values that your team can live by. The very best teams not only create such compacts but also identify ways to integrate them into their day-to-day lives as professionals.
That said, compacts are deceivingly simple; the idea is straightforward but difficult to implement meaningfully. For that, we’ve provided a step-by-step guide for how you can harness this tool for your team:
- It starts at the top. We regularly encourage leaders of teams to take accountability for driving the creation of the team compact. What does that look like in practice? It means owning and modeling your compact tenets. Preview the idea of a compact with your team and sell the benefits of creating commitments to one another. After its creation, refer to the compact with regularity. Give public praise when you see team members living out the team tenets. While the entire team will provide input, the leader sets the tone that this is an important endeavor worthy of everyone’s time. This leads us to…
- Create space for this type of activity. This, unfortunately, is not a process that a leader can speed along or cut corners with. In fact, not giving the creation of a team compact the full time and attention it deserves could damage team trust and relationships. Tactically, we advise leaders to use time during planned offsites or yearly strategy meetings to revisit and reinforce the compact. The idea is to help your team disconnect from their day-to-day and zoom out, leading to more involved and level-headed conversations.
- Engage in Team Building to Foster Trust. Before diving into the mechanics of a compact, start your session with an exercise in vulnerability. Getting the team to interact in a way that is simply fun and opens up dialogue facilitates later discussion. We recommend icebreakers and games that get people to share personal (non-work) anecdotes about themselves.
- Establish Ground Rules. As simple as this step is, it’s critical for success. Set expectations for what will be covered and what gets put in the “parking lot.” For example, we often instruct teams to use collective language, i.e., “we” and “our” rather than “you” or “I,” which could easily shift to blaming. Leaders can also invite the team to add ground rules for engagement. Ask, “what else should be on this list that would help us feel safe in this discussion?”
- Identify Norms and Operating Rules. Next, start a dialogue around collective strengths, differences, and values. This will help the team understand how they are likely to approach communicating, building relationships, engaging in conflict, and driving results. Ask each person to share 1-2 ideas for how the team can engage better together. For example, “Putting phones on silent” so that meetings are uninterrupted, or “Say it now!” to encourage team members to address conflict during meetings (versus afterward) are common practices we see in our work with teams. Note—this is a prime opportunity for the team leader to read the room. Don’t offer your judgment; simply listen, ask good questions, and steer the group away from discussions that violate ground rules.
- Vote on the Team’s Top Commitments to Establish Agreement. Once every member has contributed, have the team vote on the top 3-4 most important priorities they should adopt. The goal here is to have a team compact that is easy to remember – and therefore, easier to practice. However, be flexible and adapt as necessary.
- Create Action Plans and Identify Champions. For each priority, assign a champion – someone who is willing to: a) create an action plan for how the team can fully adopt the new behaviors identified and b) hold themselves, and the team, accountable for living up to that specific priority and engaging in behavior that supports the team compact.
- Find Time to Reconnect and Assess Progress. After the team has had some time (e.g., 6-9 months) to internalize the team compact and focus on living up to the new commitments, bring the team together to reconnect, celebrate progress, discuss obstacles, and make changes to the team compact where necessary.
Best of luck implementing a compact with your team and follow up with Vantage to tell us how it went!