How to Build a High Performing Team Using a Social Contract


How to Build a High Performing Team Using a Social Contract

Gone are the days of dictatorship in the workplace!  Hmmm, just wishful thinking on my part.

Having worked with Agile teams for most of the last eight years, I’ve taken for granted that when someone says their business is ‘agile’, it means they do more run daily standup meetings, and are flexible and adaptable.  I assume that they also take on the basic thinking around Agile, the first of which is that individuals and interactions are more important than processes.

I was having a conversation at a networking event recently when the topic turned to Agile.  This person proudly declared that their business is Agile but then continued to talk about how they don’t tolerate poor performance.  They often have ‘blood’ in the workplace, heads roll.

No doubt they don’t have social contracts in place.

what is a Social Contract and how would it help?

Under modern (agile) management, social contracts are put in place by teams to define the way that a particular team chooses to work.  It’s an agreement between the team members that enables them to self-organise and be effective.  Being self-organising does not mean that the team gets to do what they want to do.  The social contract defines the boundaries within which the team operates and represents the majority voice.  It sets the expectations while accommodating the individual work preferences of team members.

Some of the benefits of having a social contract include:

  1. Clear guidelines around what is acceptable
  2. Individual work styles are accommodated, e.g. start and finish times
  3. Set expectations around team behaviour and work quality
  4. Increased team commitment and cohesion
  5. Collaborative work leading to high performance
  6. Higher team morale
  7. Performance improvements by team self-correction
  8. Efficient handover of tasks between team members
  9. Reduced fear within the teams, increased pride from achievements
  10. Greater enjoyment from work, deeper adoption of agility
  11. Increased product quality, reduced costs
  12. Shared sense of identity
  13. Elimination of the perceived need to use the guillotine

From my experience, teams that have a social contract tend to gravitate towards the stated behaviours.  How cool is it for management not to have to state that poor performance will not be tolerated.  The team will self-correct, and produce great results in their own way.

How to introduce a social contract?

To facilitate the creation of such a contract, arrange a one-off meeting in a fairly casual setting.  It’s important that everyone feels relaxed and trusts that it’s a positive and open forum.  Introduce some team games to encourage collaboration.  If there is tension between you and your team, it will help to get a third party facilitator for the exercise, or nominate one of the team members to run the session.

Social contracts are created with input from all team members.  Management typically has little input except to gain awareness of the team’s commitment and accountability.  It’s good practice to review the social contract every so often, and when new people join the team.  Make it highly visible, print it on a large sheet of paper and hang it up for all to see.

Examples of statements found in social contracts include:

  1. Accept the unknown
  2. Respect individual differences and preferences
  3. Acknowledge team’s different skillsets
  4. Sufficient documentation, don’t document for the sheer heck of it
  5. Listen when someone is talking, don’t interject
  6. Focus on the positives
  7. Ask for help, help when asked
  8. Face-to-face conversations over email, anytime

The social contract acts as the team rules, to be pointed to and enforced by anyone in the team if deviations are experienced.  It helps manage and enforce the desired behaviour as agreed to by the team members themselves.

The Agile way of working (often referred to as WOW) is pretty WOW, don’t you think?

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