The highest performing teams have rules

Examples of ‘Rules of Engagement’ that produce results.

Whether working with a practice/industry team, an executive committee/elected board, or the members of some firm’s strategic planning working group, I continue to be struck by the dysfunctional behavior that is often present.  For example, how does one deal with the situation where all of your fellow Executive Committee members engage in a lengthy meeting to discuss a challenging, somewhat controversial situation and finally make a decision — only then to discover that following the conclusion of this meeting, a couple of your colleagues were quietly telling partners in the hallways what the group had decided to do, but that they were not in favor of that particular course of action?

I don’t know why I continue to be surprised when I personally observe or am told stories about these kinds of situations.  After all, working together in groups is not a natural, comfortable or easy thing for many of us to do.  In fact, I often start this discussion with a marker and flip chart asking the gathered members:

Folks, help me make a list here.  What is it that frustrates the hell out of you when having to work in a group – with respect to group meetings, group projects, group activities and so forth?

Now whenever I’ve posed that question in front of a flip chart, I cannot write fast enough! The members of most groups have no problem telling you about all the frustrations that have had to endure. And that is my bridge to then asking them how serious they might all be in collectively working to remove these kinds of headaches.

Two things are noteworthy here.  First, if you help me identify a frustration, which is usually emotional, I am now inclined to consider how we might work together to remove this damn headache.  And secondly, the difference between any group and a team is that your typical group is merely a convenient collection of independent individuals, each satisfied with doing their own thing; whereas a real team is an assembly of individuals that are interdependent — and they have a vested interest in collaborating to achieve shared outcomes.

What is important to understand is that the best performing teams have discovered that to operate effectively, they needed to formalize what they should specifically be able to expect of each other as members.  I have come to call these the group’s ‘Rules of Engagement.’

Rules of Engagement

Rules of engagement are working guidelines that a group consciously establishes to help individual members decide how to BEHAVE.  These rules are intended to define an operating model which addresses how individual members will treat one another, communicate, participate, cooperate, support each other, and coordinate joint activity. They may be used to define and standardize the group’s procedures, use of time, work assignments, meeting logistics, preparation, discussions, creativity, reporting, respect, and courtesy.

Now I remember raising this issue with an industry group in one firm and was greeted with a fair bit of skepticism.  The Managing Partner, who was observing the process, interceded to inform everyone about how he had been the guest of his son attending a meeting of the YPO — Young Presidents’ Organization.  He reported how he observed that the Chair, to start off this meeting, had another member bring in an easel and poster.  The Chair pointed to the poster and said: “Ladies and Gentlemen, may I remind you all of our groups’ Operating Protocols.  Please govern yourselves accordingly.” He then said to my group, “folks if they can be intelligent enough to do that, so can we.”

What follows here are three examples drawn from the ‘Rules of Engagement’ formulated by members of groups in REAL firms, that are high-performance players — and well worth emulating.  In fact, following your posing the “Frustration Question” to your group and recording their answers, you may want to share this with your colleagues as an example and as a discussion tool for them to then brainstorm and determine whether any of these might be worth incorporating and/or adding to, as appropriate norms for how they would choose to operate in the future.

For what it’s worth, Google’s People Analytics Division conducted an extensive study of over 100 different teams, and “the only pattern they found was that high-performing teams had norms that guided how team members treated each other.  Interestingly, there were no patterns among the norms.  What worked for one team was the exact opposite of what worked for another team.”  Jean Greaves &Evan Watkins, Team Emotional Intelligence 2.0 at 108 (2022).

I. Examples from elected boards / executive committees

  1. Professional behavior:  I resolve never to discuss the confidential workings of the board outside the board room, nor declare how I will vote before a meeting where some issue is likely to require that we take a vote.
  2. Work Quality:  I will keep myself informed of developments relevant to issues that may impact our firm, affect our board’s discussions, and ensure that I properly and adequately prepare for board and committee meetings in advance of my attendance.
  3. Communications:  I will always endeavor to be supportive of my fellow board members rather than judgmental.  I will always promote an environment that is safe for participation, open communication, and where board members don’t have to fear criticism or retribution.
  4. Meeting decorum:  I will attend all board meetings unless out of town, on vacation, ill, or attending to an urgent client matter that cannot be postponed.  If I am not able to attend the meeting, I will inform the Chair at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting date.
  5. Project implementation: I resolve that any and all commitments I personally make, to complete a task or project on behalf of the board, once voluntarily made, must be treated as sacredly as any promise to a client.
  6. Showing mutual respect: I agree never to talk disrespectfully about fellow board members, firm management, or our activities outside of the boardroom or in public.
  7. Decision-making:  I agree to abide by a principle where full and candid discussions will occur within the meeting room; but once the board makes a decision, it is the decision of the entire board.  And should I have been opposed to any decision during discussion within the board, I am notfree to express my dissent outside of the board.
SIDE-BAR: One “Executive Committee’s Contract” (partial list) included this:
We, the management team, agree to STOP doing the following behaviors:

  • Constantly vetting all proposals and thus taking control of any decision
  • Finger pointing and irritation when something goes wrong
  • Escape debate and confrontation by labeling people who criticize as not being “team players”
  • Mark own territory, hindering cross-functional and cross-office initiatives

II. Examples from strategic planning committees:

The reason I include this kind of Committee here is that hopefully, the professionals you might assemble to coordinate your firm’s strategy would understand that their task is to think beyond the ordinary, challenge the status quo, examine new frontiers, and propose ideas and concepts to help the firm get out ahead of the competition.

That said, as lawyers, you would be hard pressed to gather together any collection of individuals who by their nature are more critical and analytical.  So, in pulling together these professionals to strategize, one really needs to help them reach up into their heads and turn off that “Critical” switch for a little while so that we might creatively brainstorm and discuss innovative ideas.

To that end, you might utilize any of the previous Board Examples that I provided above; but one that really struck me as extremely relevant for this kind of Committee was this one:

Promoting Innovation: I confirm that I will love every new idea proffered by a fellow committee member . . . for at least 5 minutes.

Now let’s imagine that for purposes of introducing cognitive diversity, your strategic planning committee might consist of a couple of the younger partners, maybe even an associate.  You engage your group in brainstorming ideas for how we could meaningfully differentiate ourselves and the first idea out of the mouth of one of those younger partners is greeted by a verbal groan, some rolling eyes, or worse yet, one of the senior partners saying, “Are you kidding me?”

My experience: respectfully, you may as well disband the Committee as you will not get another relatively creative idea out of a number of your participants — and I’ve seen this happen time and time again!

III. Examples from high-performing practice and industry groups

Here are some sample “Rules of Engagement” that I’ve seen high-performing practice and industry groups embrace.

1. Professional Development:

We are committed to personal and professional growth. To that end, we all agree that:

  • every group member must have, and be working on, a personal career development and skill-building plan: no cruising is allowed;
  • we will help each other in the group to be the best that we can be;
  • we will ask for help from the team or other resources if “stuck” or falling behind;
  • we will be honest with any group member who is not pulling his / her weight; and
  • every member is expected to freely share their knowledge, experience, time, personal contacts, clients, and talents.
 2. Work Quality:
  • No group member will work on matters that could be delegated to a more junior professional.  If any client matter can be delegated, it must be.
  • We will all remain focused on performance, not personalities; and accept constructive criticism and choose to learn from it.
  • As team members we resolve to always pitch in, when and where necessary, to help fix problems and catch up should any important matter get behind schedule.
  • We are human; therefore, we make mistakes and we learn from them. We agree to be accountable for our own actions, behavior, and choices. We will endeavor to avoid ever trying to blame things on others. We admit our mistakes.
3. Innovative communications:
  • We will always endeavor to be supportive of each other rather than judgmental. We will always promote an environment that is safe for participation, open communication, and where group members don’t have to fear criticism or retribution.
  • We will listen with empathy, hear with understanding rather than being judgmental or defensive, willingly solicit and discuss ideas; and agree to love every new idea for at least five minutes. AND, in that same spirit we will:
    • before making a point, confirm to the group that we have understood the views of others by restating their point in our own words;
    • whenever we pose an issue or a problem, also try to present a solution or optional courses of action;
    • agree to not ever use “killer phrases” or negative body language; and
    • if need be, agree to disagree.
 4. Meeting decorum:
  • All members are expected to attend the monthly team meeting — unless out of town, on vacation, ill, or attending to an urgent client matter that cannot be postponed. If someone is not able to attend the meeting, he or she should inform the team leader at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting date.
  • Conduct is very important. We agree to avoid words and actions that create a negative impression on any individual, the group, or our objectives. We encourage debate and differing points of view, and we will do it with care and respect. Therefore, we all agree that:
    • we will notify the team in advance if we expect to be late;
    • we will use our time wisely, starting on time and ending our meetings promptly;
    • we will be present, both physically and mentally;
    • we will place our cellphones on vibrate;
    • we will listen actively throughout the course of the discussions;
    • one person speaks at a time;
    • we will behave as a participant, agreeing to take initiative and volunteer ideas;
    • we will keep to the topic, avoiding sidebar discussions while others are talking;
    • we will “park” discussion items that don’t relate to the meeting’s topic;
    • we agree that what is said in the room, stays in the room;
    • we will have fun, but not at the expense of anyone else’s feelings;
    • all meetings will end with an action list identifying specific responsibilities; and
    • everyone agrees to be responsible for the success of our efforts and therefore is expected to help facilitate, critique, and evaluate each meeting.
  • We expect to record the minutes of each meeting, clearly outlining the highlights, decisions and individual projects taken, and that a minute taker (is a rotating task) will distribute the minutes within 24 hours of the meeting date.
 5. Project implementation:
  • Any and all commitments must be made voluntarily, must be documented as to the expected deliverable or outcome, and accorded a clear and agreed-to deadline date.
  • Any and all commitments to complete a task or project on behalf of the group, once voluntarily made, must be treated as sacredly as any promise to a client.
 6. Showing Mutual Respect:
  • The group owns all ideas and concepts —and we all agree to not talk disrespectfully about team members or activities in public.
  • We take action instead of whining, positively work to inspire other group members, encourage others towards success, and avoid any “us versus them” language.
  • We agree not to listen to or allow others to speak negatively about group members behind their backs.
  • We ensure that any and all criticisms are made constructively with suggestions for improvement and using nonjudgmental language.
7. Group Celebrations: 
  • We will strive to recognize and celebrate individual and team accomplishments; and at least quarterly identify in writing the progress that has been made toward achieving our goals.

What I have come to learn is that the very highest performing groups, committees, boards and teams, in the best firms, have established for themselves some written guidelines by which members have agreed to abide.  Be prepared: you probably will not get your guidelines right the first time.  If you haven’t managed to ever start your meetings on time, simply setting a rule won’t make it happen.  You need to try something else.

Choose to enforce your written guidelines lightly.  Suppose not interrupting is one of the guidelines. When someone interrupts, you might interrupt them (with a smile and a wink) asking, “Hey George, does not interrupting still work for you?”  If some team member persistently violates a guideline, discuss it in private, the same as you might do with any other troublesome behavior.

I will never forget being in one UK Magic Circle firm some years back, wherein after having determined their specific ‘Operating Protocols’ (as they called them), a written draft was then circulated such that each partner physically signed off on their acceptance.

I guess there is something magical about having lawyers “sign” off on stuff!

To be effective, these rules of engagement must be clear, consistent, agreed to and followed.  Every group should take the time to create and adopt some sensible written behavioral guidelines.  These should be prominently displayed and consulted at each meeting— then added to and revised as needed.

Here’s to far less group frustrations!

Editor’s note: This article is republished with the permission of the author, with first publication on Legal Evolution.
Posted in: Communications, Leadership, Legal Profession, Management