Team Agreements: A Path to Peace

Alicia Santamaria

We believe that operating with clarity, consistency, and intention is key to sound organizational communication. In this guest blog, organizational consultant Alicia Santamaria shares her thoughts on the value of team agreements as a means toward building an organizational approach that is intentional and that sets clear expectations of how people can work together constructively when conflicts arise. Alicia will be leading the class Constructive Conflict Resolution for CompassPoint on November 5. 

I was at an elementary school recently and was thrilled to see this Peace Path signage posted on the playground. Years ago, I used to teach children conflict resolution skills and how to be “conflict managers” on the playground during recess and lunch. Teaching children these skills at an early age is a small but important step towards creating future community members, parents, employees, managers, and leaders who know how to communicate their feelings and needs in conflict situations in a non-adversarial manner and take responsibility for their own behavior, rather than pointing fingers.

This is something I see adults struggling with time and time again, myself included! In many organizations, I see managers and leaders challenged to deal with the interpersonal “conflict” situations that inevitably crop up between people. It can be enough to make some people want to stick their heads in the sand, which unfortunately is what happens sometimes. This avoids the situation in the short-term but the longer term implications for not tending to workplace misunderstandings, disagreements, and other conflicts can be quite damaging.

Those who are able to address situations in a timely and constructive manner and who can use their conflict competence to help people around them resolve their issues are a real asset to their teams and their organizations. Ideally, though, everyone in the workplace should have these skills and understand the expectations for using them. And, like the Peace Path playground sign, it’s helpful to have some visual reminder of the expectations for how people will treat each other. This begins with teams and organizations acknowledging and embracing the normalcy and potential usefulness of workplace conflict and engaging in processes that support honest, direct conversation.

The Benefit of an Intentional Workplace Culture

An organizational best practice for this is going through the collaborative process of creating “team agreements”. Sometimes called a “team charter”, “staff agreements”, “ground rules”, or “ways of working”,  this is a document that is created through a discussion process involving all the members of that group. It is a process that makes the creation of workplace culture intentional rather than accidental. It helps set forth the expectations of how people will work together constructively and deal with issues when they arise. Here are some agreement examples from a nonprofit team I worked with recently (these were created after a team communication skills training): 

  • Be open to receiving constructive feedback and suggestions using our best active listening skills.
  • Provide constructive feedback and suggestions in a manner that is mindful of the other person, tries to avoid their “hot buttons”, and is meant to be helpful, empathetic, and supportive.
  • Do not talk negatively about others and first speak directly with someone first if we need to discuss an issue or concern. 

Once a group talks openly and honestly about how they want to be “in relationship” with each other and creates a list of their agreements, the key is to talk about how to ensure those agreements live and breathe off the paper. Having visual reminders posted is just one way to keep them top of mind. It is also crucial to ensure new team members are oriented to the agreements and have a chance to contribute to them. The last thing teams need to make sure they discuss is how they will hold each other accountable and what to do if an agreement is broken. Managers and leaders should also explore what their role is in supporting the agreements.

Why Not Make It as Clear as You Can?

A cynic might say, “Why on earth would professional people need something like this? We aren’t children on the playground. Isn’t it obvious how you are supposed to communicate and interact with people in the workplace?” Unfortunately it isn’t obvious and having clarity around “rules of engagement” can save people much angst and the unconstructive use of their energy. Developing “team agreements” can help to create the kind of cooperative culture everyone wants in their workplaces and sets clear communication expectations for dealing with normal and natural interpersonal issues. When those disagreements and misunderstandings inevitably emerge, having agreements ensures a path to peace.

Alicia Santamaria is a trainer, coach, and organizational consultant with over 20 years of professional experience in the nonprofit sector. Her passion is helping individuals, teams, and organizations successfully move forward from where they are now to where they aspire to be. In addition to serving as a contract trainer for CompassPoint, Alicia is principal of adelante coaching + consulting and an adjunct faculty at Notre Dame de Namur University’s School of Business and Management, where she develops and teaches courses on organizational development topics.


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