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Great Teamwork Begins with a Social Contract

Today’s workplace is in the midst of a massive shift. The recent advancements in business technology allowing remote teams to work together, and the ever increasing telecommuting effect makes this an exciting time to live and work in. Despite all these changes, one challenge has always plagued managers: how can I create a positive, effective teamwork?

Team norms exist whether openly stated or not. Positive or negative, it impacts a team’s ability to function. The task of molding groups of employees into powerful teams is no easy task. However, Christine Riordan and Kevin O’Brien have an idea that may help managers make this challenge a thing of the past – or at least make it less of a headache for managers. In their Harvard Business Review article, the two suggest establishing a social contract – “an explicit agreement that lays out the ground rules for team member’s behaviors” as a means to transform groups of employees into high performance teams. These contracts typically cover things such as how members will work together, make decisions, communicate, share information and support each other.

The social contracts Riordan and O’Brien mention are a far cry of the “set in stone” variety that most are probably familiar with. Instead of having a permanent contract that team members are strictly held to, these social contracts are more like “living” documents. In fact, it’s not that uncommon for high-performing teams to regularly amend and update their social contracts to improve effectiveness. By having a living document it not only allows these contracts to adapt to unforeseen changes, but also makes it easier to get team acceptance. According to Riordan and O’Brien, the process of reviewing and altering these contracts “helps reinforce among team members what it means to be a team, to collaborate, and to ultimately excel.”

One of the benefits of creating a team social contract is that it eliminates a lot of the uncertainty that exists within most teams. The process of going through and outlining team expectations alleviates a lot of unnecessary confusion and anxiety. Instead, it allows team members to focus on accomplishing their objectives. Riordan and O’Brien also point out that social contracts give “employees a feeling of control and security in their relationships with their leader and teammates.” The biggest benefit of a social contract is the sense of responsibility, accountably, and last but certainly not least trust that these contracts help develop.

Now if you’re thinking to yourself “this is great, but I’m still unsure how to get these contracts to work for my team.” Well Riordan and O’Brien offer up some helpful suggestions. For example, as I have previously said success is dependent on team buy-in. Leaders cannot mandate these contracts. Team members must be involved in the physical drafting of the contract. If the team leader and the team end up not believing in the contract, well then it just won’t work. So incorporating team feedback throughout the entire process is critical. Riordan and O’Brien put it best by saying “Ultimately, the leader and all of the members must care about each other and the success for the team for the social contract to have any power in helping a team move down a winning path.”

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