Engagement Agreements: Potent Leadership Tools

groupagreementsEngagement agreements are one of the most powerful interventions a leader can use to shape behavior as well as workplace climate and culture.  While most people think of engagement agreements as contractual agreements between professional firms and their clients, engagement agreements are also be utilized within a company or organization to create norms for expected behaviors and accountability for observing them.  Engagement agreements are a vehicle for making desired behavior become normative, Once in place, engagement agreements begin to shape the climate of an organization, and over time, its culture.

For most coaching and consulting practitioners, continuing conflict between a leader and direct reports, between leadership team members or between different departments, is usually seen as an indication that the agreements about the organization’s vision, mission, values and expected behavior are inadequate or not explicit enough.   As a result, different people can have widely differing assumptions about the organization and how to behave within it, creating a recipe for conflict as different people act out their idiosyncratic presumptions.  This is most evident at the level of values which spell out how things are done and how people should behave with each other.

A simple example centers on how people behave in meetings, where tension and conflicts can often arise from the use of electronic devices interrupting meetings or distracting participants.  Many organizations now have explicit engagement agreements for meetings that call for all screens — cell phones, laptops and tablets — to be turned off so that participants can focus on the business at hand and being present with each other.

How do such engagement agreements come into being?  Engagement agreements are not imposed from above, but rather are adopted by participants and enacted in word and deed consistently by leaders.  The leader of a meeting can ask meeting members to discuss the topic of distractions and suggest agreements that would address the issue, though it would be more fruitful for a leader to be doing this in response to concerns about behavior raised by group members themselves.  In some cases, leaders rely on an external advisor or a consultant at a retreat to facilitate the discussion about identifying needed engagement agreements and reviewing existing ones.

The most important engagement agreement is about distributed accountability. It is an agreement that all those agreeing to a set of engagement agreements also agree to hold each other accountable for observing them.  Typically engagement agreements are incorporated into the minutes of the meeting or retreat at which they were generated and also distributed in written form. More comprehensive engagement agreements often extend to the way members of senior management teams or entire organizations behave with each other.  Elements can include:

  • A commitment to frank and open discussion of issues
  • Requesting and providing frank feedback
  • Paraphrasing each other when conflict appears to arise
  • Exploring conflicts with another person that arise in meetings on a one-on-one basis first
  • Providing materials critical to decisions prior to meetings
  • Prohibitions against blaming
  • Briefly evaluating what went well and what needs improvement at the end of meetings
  • Making a commitment to hold each other accountable for abiding by the engagement agreements

In written form, engagement agreements can provide a valuable orientation for new hires regarding what behavior is expected in meetings as well as in the larger organization.  Some organizations present their engagement agreements to job applicants, asking them what they think of them, and if they would be able to abide by them.  Many organizations go further by utilizing their formal personnel review process to assess the extent to which employees observe engagement agreements. For example, the review process would ask those being evaluated to identify six to ten other people with whom they work most often to provide feedback about how well the person abides by existing engagement agreements.

The most critical requirement for assuring engagement agreements remain viable falls to leaders.  If leaders’ behavior conflicts with the engagement agreements they helped bring about, they are sending mixed messages about acceptable behavior and sowing confusion about what behavior is really normative.  Worse yet, this conflictual behavior sends a strong message that what we say is not connected to what we do.

Likewise, leaders also need to hold all direct reports and groups accountable for breaches of engagement agreements.  A failure to do so erodes mutual accountability for behavior.  Failing to hold one or two people accountable can also send a message that there are different rules for different people regarding the engagement agreements, quickly reducing their effectiveness.  If leaders continue to send such mixed messages with their behavior, it’s likely that engagement agreements will quickly fall by the wayside and discrepant behavior will cascade down and throughout the organization, as in this example:

One client company hired a new Chief Financial Officer who was a member of its senior management team.  While supporting the company’s engagement agreements in public, after a few months this person violated them consistently in private and mocked them as being pollyannaish.  Worse yet, this person was not held accountable for his destructive behavior by other senior leadership team members or the CEO, setting off a rapid de-evolution of the climate and culture of the senior leadership team and then the larger organization.  As a result, financial performance quickly plummeted, and within a year the CEO and several executives lost their jobs. Due to the increasingly toxic work environment that resulted, many talented professionals in the organization left to take jobs elsewhere.

If you are interested in utilizing engagement agreements in your organization, you will likely have only have one opportunity to institute them.  Consequently, you need to carefully consider how they can best be established.  You will need a process by which those who would abide by these agreements actually develop them, own them and are committed to keeping their behavior consistent with them.  In addition, you will also need a vehicle for periodically revisiting the engagement agreements, to discuss how well they’re being followed and how they could be improved.  Many senior management teams have this discussion as a regular part of their annual retreats.