Setting Groundrules – The Why and The How

Groundrules are a simple and effective way to significantly ENHANCE team performance. Yet most people don’t create them. Don’t be like them, be different. Follow the simple Three Questions Structure set out in this episode to both create groundrules and to keep them ALIVE for your team. Your team’s experience of working together as well as your performance will both be ENHANCED.

The problem

If you like being like ‘everyone else’ then I recommend that you don’t read any further than this first sentence. If you want to be different and to increase the probability that the people with whom you work can be successful, then continue to read.

Over many years I have been involved in helping people to create high performing teams. Recently I have been facilitating a number of workshops on this topic. One of the fundamental steps for creating a high performing team is to set groundrules. Less than 5% of workshop attendees report that they have ever been in a team where groundrules have been created. When I then ask, “How many of you have experienced being a member of a high performing team?” very few participants report that they believe that they have experienced a high performing team.

While there are a number of factors that affect the capacity of a team to perform to its potential, the existence of groundrules is one of the factors that has a significant impact on a team’s capacity for high performance.

What is then interesting is that workshop participants often say, “Look, groundrules sound okay, but we don’t have time for that stuff!”.

It’s interesting how people often say and/or believe that they don’t have time to do the very things that will save time and enhance performance. What I’m about to say next may seem a bit odd, but in the context of creating a high performing team, slower is faster! I encourage you to be different from most other people and to try the following process for creating groundrules. It isn’t hard, people will respond positively and it takes less than 20 minutes (it’s even faster after you have had some practice!).

The process
I would like to recognise Jock MacNeish (a member of this community) for teaching me this very simple process that I have adapted from his book, Teams – The First Twelve Weeks that was co-authored with Tony Richardson and Angela Lane.

The process involves a whole team conversation and agreement around three questions plus a simple way to keep the groundrules ‘alive’ after they have been created.

Question 1
At work (or study) what team member behaviours happen that really annoy us, let us down or stop us from performing to our expected standards?

Record the behaviours that are discussed in this conversation.

Question 2
In the context of our response to question one, what groundrules do we need to agree to so that these behaviours won’t occur in our team?

Record the groundrules that you agree upon. These will be the groundrules for your team.

Question 3
What will we do when a person breaks one of our groundrules?

This is a very important conversation. It allows the team members to discuss the consequences for breaking the groundrules before they have been broken, which enables all the team members to be very clear about what they can expect to happen should a groundrule be broken. Another benefit of this conversation is that it allows the team to recognise if any of the groundrules that they had originally created were not as clear as they could have been. As an example, people often create a groundrule such as, “We will always be on time for our meetings.” The reality for many people is that on occasion they will be late for a meeting. Discussing the consequences for such behaviours allows the team to then discuss what is expected once you know that you are going to be late which will happen to even the most diligent team members from time to time.

A final benefit of the third question is that it clarifies the behavioural standards expected for all team members. This increases the pressure for people to behave to those standards because they are both explicit and everyone in the team participated in their creation.

Keeping the groundrules ‘alive’
There are two relatively simple ways to keep the groundrules alive.

a.) Create an artefact of the groundrules. I’ve worked with some teams where they have created a cafe menu and placed it in a menu holder. When the team meets they place the menu in the middle of the table. While they might not explicitly look at the menu, the artefact of the menu reminds people of what they have agreed. It’s a simple thing to do and it works.

b) Every once in a while include the groundrules as a topic for conversation in your meeting agenda. Ask, “How are we going with our groundrules?”. Should a new person join your team it is critical that you conduct a conversation with that person explaining your groundrules, and provide them with a genuine opportunity to contribute to updating the groundrules. This process keeps the groundrules fresh and relevant for the specific members of your team.

Please don’t be like ‘most other people’. Be different and give the teams of which you are a member every chance for success. Create groundrules for your team and keep them alive. You’ll find that they will not only enhance the positive experience of being in your team, but your performance will most likely improve as well!

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
Visit Gary at