10 agreements for a happy and well-functioning team (aka, how to not suck as a coworker)


team-386673_640Hi everyone, as a dashing and debonair nonprofit blogger, I get lots of emails venting about coworkers, from those who leave dishes unwashed for days to those who are passive-aggressive (see “12 types of people who get on everyone’s nerves in nonprofit.”) Our work is very complicated, with so many obstacles, from the instability and unpredictability of funding; to society’s ridiculous expectations; to intersectional dynamics of race, class, ethnicity, culture, privilege, gender, sexual orientation, disability, health, age, parenthood, etc. To face all those complexities and do our jobs well, we need to work effectively with each other. So here are 10 fundamental agreements that I recommend we make with one another as we do the challenging work of making the world better. Let me know your thoughts.

The 10 agreements for a happy and well-functioning team

Agreement 1, We will assume the best intentions in one another: I consider this the Cardinal Agreement. If someone makes a mistake the first time, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Yeah, there are jerks out there, but really, most of the time, people mean well. None of us are perfect, and the world is full of chances for us all to screw up. Let’s be generous with each other. I also find it to be a lot lighter a burden to think people are well-meaning. It is so much easier on our souls to think, “John didn’t say good morning back to me. I hope everything is OK with him. Maybe he’s just having a bad day.” Versus, “He ignored me on purpose! Curse him! May his field remain fallow, his livestock weak and barren, his progeny afflicted with gingivitis unto the seventh generation!” 

Agreement 2: We will not get pissed off at anyone for failing to fulfill expectations we never clearly set: I’ve seen this happen over and over, and heck, I’m guilty of it too from time to time. We assume that everyone has the same information and values as we do. Then we throw a hissy fit when something doesn’t happen the way we want. One day I got irritated at a coworker for escaping as soon as an event was over, leaving me to clean up by myself. What a terrible, lazy, thoughtless, inconsiderate jerk, I thought; ugly too. Then I realized, Dammit, I never asked him to help with take-down. And then I went back to Agreement 1 and think, Well, maybe he left right away because it’s his son’s birthday and he’s going home to surprise him, or maybe he didn’t feel good, or some other reason. Let’s stop assuming things and just communicate clearly our expectations and requests.

Agreement 3: We will give feedback honestly and directly and not be passive-aggressive*: Maybe it’s just the Pacific Northwest, where I’ve spent most of my time, but there is a serious epidemic of people not talking directly to each other to resolve differences. We will talk to everyone about the person who gets on our nerves except to the person who gets on our nerves, and they often have no clue that they did anything wrong. Or we beat around the bush or lie when they ask if anything is wrong. And then finally someone tips them off—“so I heard from Mary that Edna told her that Edna was irritated by your loud singing to N’Sync while she was working on the newsletter”—and by then, the damage is done. This passive-aggressive behavior is incredibly destructive to any team. If you got beef with anyone, talk to them directly, one-on-one.

*Update: After thinking it over and getting thoughtful feedback from colleagues, I want to modify this a little to include the fact that people have different communication styles, especially when we have so many different cultures, and what may seem like “passive-aggressive” may simply be an indirect style. Still, it’s important to be communicate; if you do not feel comfortable giving feedback directly, find an ally or talk to a supervisor and get some support to provide this feedback in some way. 

Agreement 4: We will focus on specific behaviors, not attack personal character: All of us have habits, some that are good, and some that suck. It is easy to generalize from a sucky behavior to an entire narrative about a person’s character. When giving feedback, we will focus on specific actions, for instance “Would you mind not singing loudly to N’Sync when I am writing my newsletter? I’ll give you a heads-up when I’m doing that, thanks so much” vs. “It is really inconsiderate of you to sing ‘Tearin’ Up My Heart’ when I’m trying to work; can you be more thoughtful of the rest of us in the office?”

Agreement 5: We will give everyone chances to learn and to improve: After receiving feedback, everyone deserves at least one chance to improve. Habits are hard to break. Think of how difficult it is to quit smoking. All of us will lapse and relapse. Let’s be patient with one another and give everyone a chance to change. Let’s help each other learn and grow and blossom from a caterpillar of irritating habits and mistakes to a butterfly of awesomeness.

Agreement 6: We will not get pissed at anyone if we’ve never given them feedback and a chance to improve: If you don’t give people feedback when they do something wrong, it is unfair for you to get mad at them. None of us are mind readers. So either you talk to people directly, which is Agreement 3, or else suck it up. If you are not comfortable talking to people directly for some reason, then find another solution, possibly talking to your supervisor to figure something out. But again, if someone has no clue that they did something that affects you, then you have no ground to glare daggers at them.

Agreement 7: We will not form cliques nor spread gossip: Few things are as destructive to an organization as when people start forming cliques. This often happens when the above Agreements are not followed. Suddenly an issue that can be solved by people talking to each other directly intensifies into a battlefield as people gather allies and form factions. Allies usually then only get one side of the story, and people in the clique start reinforcing whatever horrible narrative is proposed and find evidence to support it, ignoring evidence to the contrary, and then soon everyone breaks out into an elaborate musical number with lots of finger-snapping. Who wants that? No one. (That might actually just be a scene I’m writing for #nonprofitthemusical)

Agreement 8: We will own our part in contributing to conflict: It is easy to think that we are amazing and perfect human beings and that other people are wrong and stupid when conflicts arise. It is also easy, once we believe that hypothesis, to find evidence to support it and ignore everything else. But it takes two to tango. I know because I took Argentine Tango in college, and it was really awkward dancing by myself when my partner was sick one time. So let us agree to own up to the part we play in any conflict, because it is never as simple as who is right and who is wrong. Oftentimes, it is unintentional, but we still play a role in creating the conflict or contributing to it. 

Agreement 9: We will own our part in creating and implementing solutions: Same with owning our part in any conflict, let us agree that we will all contribute to solving problems that may arise. We agree to refrain from saying things like, “This is not my problem” or “At this point, I don’t care anymore, y’alls do whatever you want.” If a problem affects the entire team, then it is the entire team’s responsibility to solve it, including assessing the situation, brainstorming solutions, and selecting a direct but respectful way to tell Bob that he needs to remove his containers of moldy food from the office fridge. 

Agreement 10: We will not take our jobs for granted: None of us are entitled to our jobs. Most of us are paid staff. We get money to do this stuff. Maybe not as much as some of us would like, but the point is that we are paid, and if we cannot do our job with quality, minimum complaining, and a spirit of learning and teamwork, then we don’t deserve to be here. No one owes us a job, and there’s probably lots of people who might do a better job if we are not here. Let’s be appreciative of what we have, work to improve things, and support one another to strengthen our community.  

Let me know of other agreements we should make with one another. The above rules should apply to most situations. 

Especially when it comes to the dishes in the office sink; wash your gosh-darn dishes!

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24 thoughts on “10 agreements for a happy and well-functioning team (aka, how to not suck as a coworker)

  1. Jason

    “Y’alls”? “Y’alls”? Vu, I may not have ever told you how important it is to me that you correctly use Southern slang, but your lack of care about my sensitivities in composing this post tells me that you are a moral monster. All the other Texans on this thread will back me up, I’m sure. 😉

    1. Vu Le

      Jason, I spent 4 of my formative years in Memphis, so that qualifies me to use Southern slang. So you and Nancy, below, y’alls should just accept y’alls.

      1. Cyclopath2

        Perfect example of how, “None of us are perfect,” because that should be, “None of us IS perfect.” 😉

      2. disqus_sTZkrJKrWj

        Last I checked that would be “all y’all should accept y’alls.” I loved this piece and have shared it with my nonprofit as a whole. It resonates!

  2. Sondra Kornblatt

    Great as always, and… I get the need to take ownership, but group processing everything takes a toll as well. Can someone be part of creating and implementing solutions if ze [my gender neutral preference] allows others full reign in solving a problem without zir input, and ze provides support without second guessing on implementation?

    1. Vu Le

      Sondra, I agree. Sometimes we don’t all need to be involved in the solutions. But then we can’t complain if someone else develops and implements the solutions that we don’t like!

  3. Patricia Garza

    Something I always start a lot of my group agreements with are “get off your darn cellphone.” I know this is partly tied to #1 but how can we set that rule so that way when we are all present we are all really present. I know we are all busy people but the lack of respect for a meeting or even an individual by being head down in your phone is an epidemic and I want to try to set up a space where we can stop that. I’ve tried setting up that rule but to no avail.

    1. Jennifer Clancy

      I agree. I get really hurt in meetings and informal presentations when I’m talking and everyone is on their phone. I interpret it as a dis.

      1. Vu Le

        I agree, Patricia and Jennifer. But I think the important thing is that you communicate this with the rest of the team, because they may have no idea that it bothers you this much

    2. smitzter

      Hey, my two cents take it or leave it. Your situation could be very different then mine. I personally like when another perspective is given to me so I try to offer that when I have one. …

      Tbh, I try not to put out rules with a group as rules often create barriers to inclusivity. Often being on media devices helps people with ADHD, social anxiety, and PTSD. Generally I want to set up a situation where the group of individuals I am working with want to be engaged in what is happening. When I notice people on their phones then I make everyone get up and move around a bit or take a break or do anything interactive or …. I would rather have someone on their device and paying attention then spacing out or falling asleep or just not there which are often the other default coping mechanisms. I have been in meetings where the first half everyone is totally checked out then the people in charge or whatever finally leave and everyone wakes up and starts talking. This tells me it is not so much the individuals on their phone and more about the structure of the meetings. I am speaking from working with a variety of age groups and cultural backgrounds.

      *I mean there is always that privileged white guy who is on his phone then sets it down to talk over top of someone and tell them how wrong they are then gets back on his phone but at least in my experience that is more rare and folks are more likely to be on their phones for other reasons.

  4. Katie Kosseff

    Great agreements list, Vu! The one thing I’d add, though, is that, in my limited experience, no team agreements list will stand the test of time without leaders who lead by example. If leaders are passive aggressive and not doing the hard work of direct communication, for example, I don’t think staff or even full teams will have great success staying on track with these skills. And, most importantly, if leaders leave dishes in the sink, then the kitchen cleanliness project is SUNK!

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