Why Facilitators and Consultants Shouldn’t Ask Groups to Develop Their Own Ground Rules

Roger Schwarz

If you’re a facilitator or group consultant, you’re not helping a group if you ask them to develop a set of ground rules for working together. Ground rules—the set of behaviors that group members agree to use in their interactions—are essential for effective groups and teams. Facilitators and consultants also improve their effectiveness by using them. But many facilitators and consultants mistakenly believe that a group needs to develop its own ground rules to be committed to them. The group simply needs to value the ground rules and make an informed choice to use them. Asking a group to develop its ground rules not only makes the group less effective, it also reduces your ability to help the group.

Groups Usually Don’t Have the Expertise to Develop Effective Ground Rules
As a facilitator or group consultant, the group is hiring you—at least in part—for your group process expertise. That includes knowing—based on research and practice—what behaviors help a group become more effective and less effective. Because groups are typically unable to clearly articulate these behaviors, the ground rules that group members suggest have several problems:

  • They are too abstract to be useful. To be useful, the ground rules need to specify behaviors. However, group members often suggest statements like “be respectful” or “be responsible” that are values—abstract by definition—and that mean different things to different group members. Values are important for a group, but they aren’t specific enough to serve as ground rules. Group members typically are unable to articulate the essential behaviors that lead to being respectful or responsible. Even when not offering values as ground rules, group members suggest ground rules that are still too general to be useful, such as “listen to others.”
  • They are inconsistent with effective group behavior. Group members often suggest common behaviors that are inconsistent with creating effective results, such as “praise in public, criticize in private” or “stay on track.” Following these ground rules can result in a group making decisions without all the relevant information and not addressing the root cause of the problems it is trying to solve.
  • They focus on procedural rather than behavioral rules. Rules such as “turn off mobile phones” and “start on time, end on time” may be appropriate, but they don’t help group members agree on how to talk with each other to effective solve problems and make decisions.

You Should Already Have a Set of Ground Rules to Recommend
If you are a group process expert, you operate from a group effectiveness model, which includes specific behaviors that contribute to group effectiveness. These behaviors are a central part of your work. You use the behaviors to guide your diagnosis and intervention with the group. When you see group members using behaviors that will likely reduce group effectiveness, you intervene to help the group use more effective behaviors.

Consequently, when you start working with a group, you already have a set of behaviors that can serve as the group ground rules. If you ask groups to develop ground rules and they propose ones that are inconsistent with effective group behavior, you have created three poor options: 1) facilitate using the group’s ground rules and contribute to the group’s ineffective behavior; 2) ignore the ground rules that the group has proposed and fail to be transparent about why you are ignoring their ground rules; or 3) take time to discuss with the group how their proposed ground rules will create unintended negative consequences. This last option is appropriate for groups that have hired you for the expressed purpose of learning how to develop and use effective behaviors, but otherwise it is not a good use of a group’s time. Fortunately, you can avoid all three of these poor options.

How to Develop and Introduce Ground Rules to a Group
You can avoid the problems above, help groups become more effective, and improve your effectiveness if you make effective group behaviors a central part of your work.

Develop or select a set of effective group behaviors. Develop and/or choose these behaviors thoughtfully; they are an important part of your approach to helping groups. Use a set of behaviors that are based on research and theory, behaviorally specific, stated in plain English, and are applicable to groups in general.

Create a list that is short but relatively comprehensive. The list will be more useful to the extent it addresses more of the behaviors that contribute to group effectiveness. Together, the behaviors need to be congruent. If following any behavior makes it more difficult to follow any other behaviors, the list will create problems for you and the group. So, avoid developing your list simply by googling group ground rules and selecting the ones that you like. Choose behaviors that put into practice the thinking that effective group members operate from and that help create the results that effective groups create. By choosing behaviors this way, you ensure that the behaviors are part of your broader model for helping groups. (My broader approach includes the mutual learning approach and the Team Effectiveness Model that I describe in The Skilled Facilitator). I use a set of eight behaviors that I have developed and refined over the last thirty-five years:

  1. State views and ask genuine questions.
  2. Share all relevant information.
  3. Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean.
  4. Explain your reasoning and intent.
  5. Focus on interests, not positions.
  6. Test assumptions and inferences.
  7. Jointly design next steps.
  8. Discuss undiscussable issues.

You can download the article titled “Eight Behaviors for Smarter Teams” describing these behaviors and you can distribute the article to groups you work with.

Explain your ground rules during the planning process and ask for reactions. After you have developed your set of behaviors, don’t wait until you are meeting the full group to first discuss them. As you are planning to work with the group, explain how you use the behaviors to help you identify when the group may be acting less effectively than they might and to help them work more effectively together. Explain that you will be using these behaviors with the group because they are an essential part of how you help groups. Ask if there are any behaviors they think might be missing or need to be changed. For example, groups sometimes add a ground rule about keeping certain information confidential. If the group suggests additions or changes, be sure they are congruent with the core values and assumptions of your group effectiveness model.

By the end of this planning conversation, it’s important that the group has answered two questions: 1) Does the group want to work with you given the behaviors/ground rules you use and are recommending; and 2) does the group also want to learn to use these behaviors? The answer to the second question determines the extent to which you will be helping the group learn how to use the behaviors as part of your work with them. But the answer to the first question determines whether you and the group are a good enough fit to work together. If the answer to the first question is “no,” then the group is essentially telling you that they don’t find your approach to helping helpful.
If you develop a set of research-based, congruent behaviors that contribute to effective group results and use them to guide your own consulting, you will find it easier to recommend these behaviors to the groups you are helping. More important, you will improve your clients’ effectiveness as well as your own.

originally published July 2017