Everyone who has ever worked in a team will have experienced how, during the course of the collaboration, agreed commitments are not met. This results in frustration, diminishing trust and – in the worst case – apathy. It’s something that we also witness during team coaching. Our ultimate conclusion may surprise you: we believe that not meeting team agreements actually benefits the collaboration. This article outlines how.

Agreement ownership

At the start of a collaboration, team members have questions like: ‘How do we behave towards one another?’ and ‘What do we expect from each other in order to have constructive meetings?’ One pitfall is that the team leader becomes the one to answer such questions, thereby running the risk that the team members do not feel ownership of the agreements. The agreement becomes a ready-made rule, imposed by the team leader, that is easy to break: ‘It’s a list of agreements that it’s almost impossible to say “no” to, but I haven’t personally committed myself; I haven’t been asked anything. The list was presented and I just said “yes”’.

From ignoring to caring

But even if team members are explicitly asked to engage with a team agreement, it can still subsequently be broken. How team members react to agreements being broken is important for the collaboration. We observe four different reactions, which we will illustrate using agreements regarding time: starting and concluding a meeting on time, the timely delivery of documents.

The first reaction is ignoring. Even if people, documents or other necessary preparatory work is not present on time, the collective moves forward on the proposed trajectory. Work on this trajectory is subsequently suboptimal, but this fact is also ignored. Whether deliberately or unintentionally, tension is created and mutual trust is impacted.

The second reaction is punishment. Jokes are made about the latecomer (either in his presence or absence), he is given a frivolous punishment (singing a song or adding money to the kitty) or he is criticised for failing to meet the agreement. The facts don’t lie, so the latecomer can do little else than accept the reaction, explain his tardiness or let it wash over him. If the team leader conceives the punishment, the entire team may behave obediently while taking issue with the team leader. It will only be a matter of time before someone else fails to meet an agreement.

A third possible reaction is expression. The team members express the impact of failing to meet agreements: ‘If you arrive late, I miss your input’, ‘If you come in late, we have to repeat things and progress stalls’. In this case, the team members enter into discussion and work together to find a solution. This solution may require adjusting the agreements.

The fourth reaction we observe differs substantially to the first three, as it is proactive. This is caring for the other person. For example, reaching out to the missing colleague before the meeting begins. Or that the individual realises they will be too late, and accordingly takes suitable proactive action.

Signals of team development

We coach teams towards the phase in which everyone is fully focused on the result: the Performing phase. Based on Tuckman’s phases and Scharmer’s ‘Fields of conversations’ model, we distinguish between four phases in team development (see image to the right). The four reactions to agreements being broken help to offer insight into the current phase a team is in. Ignoring is linked to the Politeness phase; we ignore behaviour that has the potential to disrupt the harmony. This reflex has its roots in the fear of not being part of the group and the assumption that it is the team leader who should ensure that deviations from agreements are a subject of discussion. The Politeness phase is characterised by dependency, which is why team members adjust their behaviour in order to fit in.

Punishment also stems from a reflex: from anger or disappointment. It actually results in disharmony, in storming. There are various potential team responses to this: a common reflex is that the team is keen to neutralise the created disharmony. It collectively adjusts and therefore returns to the Politeness phase. Another reflex is rebellion: team members behave independently, take issue with the team leader and the working method, and focus more keenly on their own task than on the common interest. In this case, the team becomes disjointed; it grates.

The team’s reaction to the ‘grating’ or Storming phase is crucial for a high-performance culture: does the team return to the Politeness phase, does it remain in Storming, or does it progress into the Inquiry phase, where there is scope for reflection and understanding?

A third reaction to agreements being broken moves beyond the reflex, and is characterised by reflection: the team sees the rule-breaking as a symptom, recognises the mutual interdependency required to achieve the results and explores how it may be possible to harmonise the collaboration and mutual expectations in order to restore trust in each other. Expression is behaviour typical of this Inquiry phase.

Once the team approaches or enters the Performing phase, we see care for each other. Here, team members are also aware that interdependency is required in order to achieve the desired results. If a team has successfully navigated its way through – and thoroughly reflected upon – a phase of disharmony, the individual team members feel so closely connected that they start caring for each other.

Hassle is inevitable

In our experience, failing to meet team agreements is the rule rather than the exception. We even explicitly draw attention to the matter once the team has determined their team agreements: ‘You are going to break these rules, and that’s fine. What’s important is what you do next. After all, hassle is inevitable!’

A team can achieve outstanding results if the team members are able to focus primarily on content. Hassle arises when the reaction to unclear or mistaken expectations stems from a reflex: ignoring or punishing. The hassle benefits team development if it is followed by reflection. By experiencing the hassle, recognising it and navigating through it, expectations become clear(er) and trust is created. Trust is vital in order to be able to focus fully on the result, and building trust takes time: to experience the collaboration together, to reflect on it and make the necessary improvements. We are often asked ‘How long does it take to reach the Performing phase?’ Based on our experience, our answer is: ‘If we have full-time access to the team: four days’.