8 Ground Rules for Great Meetings

Roger Schwarz

If you want your team to be effective, you need meeting ground rules — and you need agreement about how to use them. Many teams that have ground rules don’t regularly use them. But having rules in place that you consistently enforce can significantly improve how your team solves problems and makes decisions.

There are different types of ground rules. Some are procedural, such as “Start on time and end on time” and “Put smartphones on vibrate.” Procedural ground rules are useful but don’t help your team create productive behavior beyond, say, everyone being on time and having their smartphones on vibrate.

Other ground rules are abstract, such as “Treat everyone with respect” and “Be constructive.” These rules focus on a desirable outcome but don’t identify the specific behaviors that are respectful or constructive. As a result, abstract rules create problems if group members have different ideas about how to act respectfully. For some group members, acting respectfully means not raising any concerns about individual members in the group; for other members it may mean the opposite.

Behavioral ground rules are more useful. They describe specific actions that team members should take to act effectively. Examples of behavioral ground rules include “make statements and ask genuine questions” and “explain your reasoning and intent.” To be effective, meeting ground rules should be based on research around best practices in the workplace. For example, research has identified three results that all leadership teams need to achieve: strong performance, positive working relationships, and individual well-being. But many ground rules undermine one or more of these results.

For example, some teams point out when a team member is off topic by directly saying “That’s off topic” or by using an agreed-upon word, such as “jellyfish.” But all these variations of the ground rules are based on the assumption that the person calling jellyfish is correctly stating that the other person is off topic. Research shows that calling out a team member can create unintended consequences if the person calling them out is wrong: The other person will keep raising the issue or will shut down for the rest of the meeting. Your team may make a lower-quality decision because that person’s contributions were not heard or because the person is not committed to implementing the decision.

A more productive way to deal with this situation is to have a ground rule about testing assumptions and inferences. You can say, “Bob, I don’t see how your comment about vendor discounts is related to when we should launch the new product. Can you help me understand the connection, or, if it’s not related, can we figure out if and when we should address your topic?” Saying this enables you to quickly test your inference that Bob’s comment isn’t related.

You may learn that Bob is thinking more systemically than the rest of the team and has identified an important issue that no one else thought of. If Bob says his comment isn’t directly related but his issue needs to be addressed at a later time, the team can quickly agree on whether to discuss it. Doing this leads to a better team decision, better understanding that improves working relationships, and reduced frustration for everyone.

Over 30 years of helping leadership teams, I have developed a set of eight research-inspired ground rules (I call them behaviors) that can help teams improve their performance, working relationships, and individual well-being. (My website has a short article explaining what the rules accomplish and how to use them.)

  • State views and ask genuine questions. This enables the team to shift from monologues and arguments to a conversation in which members can understand everyone’s point of view and be curious about the differences in their views.
  • Share all relevant information. This enables the team to develop a comprehensive, common set of information with which to solve problems and make decisions.
  • Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean. This ensures that all team members are using the same words to mean the same thing.
  • Explain reasoning and intent. This enables members to understand how others reached their conclusions and see where team members’ reasoning differs.
  • Focus on interests, not positions. By moving from arguing about solutions to identifying needs that must be met in order to solve a problem, you reduce unproductive conflict and increase your ability to develop solutions that the full team is committed to.
  • Test assumptions and inferences. This ensures that the team is making decisions with valid information rather than with members’ private stories about what other team members believe and what their motives are.
  • Jointly design next steps. This ensures that everyone is committed to moving forward together as a team.
  • Discuss undiscussable issues. This ensures that the team addresses the important but undiscussed issues that are hindering its results and that can only be resolved in a team meeting.

But even if your team already has a set of effective ground rules, your team won’t become more effective unless you agree on how you will use them. Here’s how to do that:

  • Explicitly agree on the ground rules and what each one means. A set of behaviors aren’t your team’s ground rules until everyone on the team agrees to use them. The term ground rules was originally used to describe the rules of baseball that teams agreed to use in a particular venue, or grounds. Those rules were — and still are — necessary for playing baseball fairly across venues that are not exactly the same. Similarly, when your team members take time to discuss and develop a common understanding of what your rules mean, you increase the chance that the rules will be implemented consistently and effectively in different situations.
  • Develop a team mindset that’s congruent with the ground rules. The behaviors your team uses are driven by the mindset (that is, values and assumptions) you operate from. If you adopt effective ground rules but operate from an ineffective mindset, the ground rules won’t work. For example, if you assume that you are right about Bob being off topic, you won’t test your inference — you’ll just tell him to get back on topic. But if you assume that you might be missing something that Bob sees, you will be curious about the connection Bob sees between his comment and the topic at hand.
  • Agree that everyone is responsible for helping each other use the ground rules. Teams are too complex to expect that the formal leader alone can identify every time a team member is acting at odds with a ground rule. In effective teams, all members share this responsibility, meaning teams should agree on how individuals will intervene when they see others not using a ground rule.
  • Discuss how you are using the ground rules and how to improve. Take five minutes at the end of each team meeting to discuss where you used the ground rules well and where you can improve. If you find yourself having these conversations outside the team, you’re not building a better team.

Ground rules are powerful tools for improving team process. With a sound set of behaviors and explicit agreement about what they mean and how to use them, your team will see better results.

originally published on HBR blog June 15, 2016