The Operating Agreement

Richard Citrin Ph.D., MBA
Richard Citrin Ph.D., MBA

Most teams run by working through an agenda and then sending everyone out to do their thing. They rarely work together and even worse, just assume that everyone understands how to be a good team member, as if it is genetically programmed.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, most people don’t know how to be on a team and even if you played on your HS Soccer team or were in Drama Club, operating as a team in your business is a completely different ball game. The consequences of not having and knowing the rules will probably explain why your projects are not as successful as they can be at best and may help create a toxic work environment at worst.

The latter happened recently with a mid-size company asked us to assess and address their workplace culture. The assessment showed that while much of the organization functioned okay, the leadership team could not find an effective way of working together and often experienced internal dysfunction in their day to day activities.

As we worked with the leadership team, we found that the quickest way to improve the situation was to create an operating agreement that they developed and owned. The Agreement had the following components:

  1. Their purpose which included identifying what they were about and how they could address the actions to drive business success.
  2. Their key challenges as a group, such as clarifying roles and responsibilities.
  3. How they would communicate with each other in team and personal settings which included having (1) clear agendas, (2) full transparency and (3) dealing with conflict.
  4. Clarity around decision making and what their individual and team responsibilities were to adhere to those decisions.
  5. How they would express their commitments by supporting one another and holding each other accountable for work.

We had several forthright conversations during the building of this agreement, but a critical moment happened when I pushed my role as facilitator and challenged one of the leaders to more fully engaged in the conversation. His frustration with me was palpable to everyone in the group and after a short rest room break, I realized I had an opportunity to model how the group could openly address uncomfortable conflict. I apologized to him in front of the entire team stating that while I felt he needed to contribute more, I was probably too forceful in my request. Someone commented that it was the first time she had ever heard anyone apologize in any of their meetings. More importantly, this leader accepted my apology and proceeded to openly express his feelings to the rest of the group which allowed all of them to begin sharing their concerns honestly which began the road back to trust.

My modeling of how to recognize and acknowledge a mistake proved to be an important step for this team to come together. The team went on to build out their Operating Agreement and posted it in their offices and meeting rooms. They even cascaded it down to their teams.

Tools like Operating Agreements can meaningfully shift how teams work together and also require the tough conversation that have to occur on the road to build it.

Your Challenge this Week: Examine how your teams at work engage to drive business success. A simple operating agreement can help to focus their energy and activity and to eliminate wasted time and more importantly, misunderstood feelings. Send me a note at [email protected] if you and your team need help in becoming high performing.

© Richard Citrin, All rights reserved, 2019


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