Team Building Ground Rules

Many of my clients complain about their workplace teams. They often share common frustrations: wasted time spent in ineffective meetings, a lack of accountability, members not speaking the truth or being unwilling to call each other out for bad behavior. High-performing teams (in business or in sports) maintain high expectations, have clearly understood standards for behavior and hold each other accountable for results. They recognize that to achieve and maintain high performance levels will require both a disciplined and deliberate action plan.

Establishing team ground rules — collectively — that reflect desired norms of behavior can help serve as a self-policing method to overcome many typical team dysfunctions. These ground rules can be simple directives, such as “no cell phones or PDAs in meetings,” to overall expectations and guidelines, such as “everyone has a right to be heard.” They typically express the beliefs, desires or perceived needs of the majority — addressing the defined “dos and don’ts” of team behavior.

High-performing teams often use these team rules to resolve common performance challenges. While some leaders will attempt to mandate team ground rules, this is rarely an effective approach. Just because you make a rule doesn’t mean people will follow it (anyone have teenagers?). Wise leaders facilitate a team process that allows the team to identify how they will work more effectively together — and to co-create helpful team norms that will increase productivity and performance. People are more committed to follow norms they help create and also will be more likely to hold each other accountable to them. A great first question to ask is, “What expectations do team members have of each other?”

Having solid team ground rules can also help your team deal with problematic behaviors. We have all observed dysfunctional behaviors (someone constantly interrupting or getting the group off topic), and yet no one says or does anything. If no one intervenes, the behavior likely will continue. Many times the offender is not even aware that the behavior is a problem for others. Ground rules offer team members (and leaders) a useful way to identify, intervene and resolve dysfunctional team behavior. The first “golden rule” of team dynamics: Ignoring and not addressing bad behavior does not make it go away.

For example, if a team has agreed to a ground rule of being specific, when members make general statements like, “Some people don’t …” a team member can respond with, “One of our ground rules is to be specific; when you say ‘some’ people, exactly who are you talking about? ” Or if the topic of the meeting has been pulled off course (without the group agreeing), someone can intervene with, “I believe the team is off track. Does anyone else agree?” Reminding each other of team standards is an excellent way to encourage team accountability and improve performance.

It’s tough to cultivate accountability when expectations are ambiguous. In order to hold other members accountable, team members need to know what each other is working on. Have a check in at the beginning of meetings where team members update each other about their progress toward task goals. Again, peer pressure to account for your actions and results will help foster accountability.

Keep ground rules clear and member responsibilities out in the open so they aren’t ignored. A few key ground rules are better than a long list. Revisit them from time to time to see if they are still working or needed. If not, remove them or develop new ones.

All teams have norms that influence behavior. Just because they aren’t “formal” or explicit doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

The key question is, are these norms helping or hindering the team? Good facilitators and leaders will help teams to surface their unconscious norms, identify their effect and allow the team to decide whether they are effective and still want to operate by them.


Here are some ground rules to consider:

  • It’s OK to disagree.
  • We challenge each other constructively; no personal attacks.
  • When we present problems, we also offer solutions.
  • No electronic disruptions.
  • When confused, ask.
  • Notify members if and when commitments can’t be met.
  • Leave meetings clear: Who will do what by when.
  • All members participate in problem solving — we value all perspectives.
  • Stay focused and on track.
  • One person has the floor at a time (no interruptions).

I am available for team building help:  360 682 5807.  My clients are all over the world, I coach via Skype or Facetime!