You want to improve your team’s performance? Of course. We all do. This blog offers you a time-tested tool that most of us take for granted – the social contract.
What are your social contracts? Family? Classmates? Members of your management team? All levels of the organization reporting to you? Maybe your teenager told you they had to sign a social contract to participate in high school extracurricular activities?
Social contracts, implied or overt written documents, are in place for EVERY team/workgroup. The social contract may be weak, dysfunctional, or terrific. Our job is to step back and think about the social contract that covers our work group and ask how we can improve it.
Unpacking the Social Contract
No surprise, teamwork is as old as mankind. Collaboration, skill specialization, combined with a leadership hierarchy are common threads from ancient times to the modern workplace. Social scientists analyze our behavior in families or any form of group and see instinctual and learned behaviors that demonstrate the fundamentals of the social contract:
The legacy of social contracts is long. Ancient philosophers from India and Greece wrote about social contracts as binding promises on which their civilizations were built. Every modern government is built on social contracts.
Jump to today in the workplace. It turns out that the customer service rep that joins the team of operators at call center also has a social contract. I’m not trivializing the concept. While the differences between social contracts is important, the reality is that the quid pro quo of the social contract is at the foundation of every group.
A Better Social Contract
As managers, we have the capability to change for the better the social contract that defines our team. Keith Ferrazzi shared his vision for how to improve team performance in his Oct 2022 Harvard Business Review article, A New Social Contract for Teams. Ferrazzi quotes startling statistics about underperforming teams. He challenges managers to not accept the status quo; instead, he challenges the reader to create a new social contract with our teams to elevate performance.
I’ll admit, as a veteran manager, I finished the article and said, “Nice theory, but I need more to consider how to make it happen in practice”. So, I dug deeper and went to the Ferrazzi Greenlight website. I quickly found an easy questionnaire that motivated me to write this blog.
Complete the questionnaire for your workgroup. In five minutes, using less than a dozen questions, the survey tool puts you on edge as a manager by asking you to address team behavior and attitudes, not production or quality problems. The payoff? Ferrazzi Greenlight returns an assessment that scores your responses against their database of 1,000+ other team assessments and then invites you to read more of their research.
Ferrazzi Greenlight’s research reveals that most teams:
- Don’t operate near their potential,
- Aren’t accountable for shared goals,
- Don’t collaborate on solving critical business problems, and
- Can’t manage the complexity of competing demands.
That sounds like a lot of teams I know. It’s not that the teams are bad, it’s just that the teams could be so much better!
Ferrazzi Greenlight uses their questionnaire to expose these behaviors that hold back teams:
- Conflict avoidance.
- Silos that block collaboration.
- Lack of authentic shared goals.
- Too much hierarchy and control.
- Commitments are made, but not met. Poor accountability.
- Team members don’t participate and help each other.
- Personal connections amongst the team are rare.
- Performance is consistently below potential. Others innovate, we stand pat.
The diagnostic then analyzes responses against their database of over 1,000 team assessments. Results are organized and scored on 8 dimensions:
Do the test for your team. You’ll see opportunities to address the gaps as a basis for a new social contract with your team.
How to Move Forward
The new social contract isn’t just forged out of thin air. Obviously, the team will need to see a new paradigm that is worth the risk and effort of giving up on the current ‘easy and passive’ social contract for the more ambitious version.
Ferrazzi Greenlight recommends using six methods to start creating a new social contract:
- Assign small groups to collaborate on important problems. In these small sessions, accountability is addressed, candid commentary is encouraged, and new relationships are formed. The small groups practice ‘teaming out’, the process of forming new teams dynamically to bring the right people into the room. The key is the small group has a focused task and the right team members in the room (virtual or IRL) leave little room for an individual to NOT engage.
- Forcing alignment through ‘bulletproofing’ exercises. Projects are presented to the larger team and, after the presentation, the larger group breaks down into smaller groups (see Teaming Up) to create no-holds barred feedback and constructive criticism via shared documents. The small groups are encouraged to add offers of help or specific suggestions.
- Tackling conflict avoidance head-on. Leaders need to challenge the group that ‘back-channel’ messaging is not acceptable and insist on airing feedback publicly, but constructively and recipients are asked to respond to critical comments with curiosity. (Note: the HBR article references Ray Dallio’s book, Principles as a touchstone on giving and receiving feedback. I read the book. It sets a high bar!).
- Call the ‘red-flag replay’. Most of us have seen the use of red-flag replay in conflict resolution either in a NFL game or in a Progressive Insurance commercial. The concept is simple: when a discussion gets sideways or counter to the team’s social contract, participants should be encouraged to pause and walk back the discussion to clarify or recast comments more constructively.
- Use the ‘safe-word’ Couples counselling (surely a place where social contracts are tested!) always includes a safe word to assure psychological safety. Add a safe-word to your team vocabulary.
- Work towards Open 360 feedback systems. 360 performance management systems sound great, but too often fail in execution because the team has a poor social contract in place. A new social contract for a work group should lay the foundation for effective 360 performance management.
After working through the process of creating a new social contract at work, one of Ferrazzi Greenlight’s clients is quoted in the HBR article as saying, “We used to iterate strategy over several months and decisions came strictly from the top, without everyone’s buy-in. That tension would lead to all kinds of passive-aggressive behavior, and people wouldn’t really observe the spirit of decisions. There’s a big difference between saying ‘We’re all in’ and really believing it and just reluctantly complying. We’re definitely in the former category today.”
I can’t think of a better way to close this blog. Every team has a social contract. There is a good chance your work place social contract isn’t as good as it could be. Start the conversation to change that.