Why use a team social contract?

Social contracts are a high level tool used by teams to outline what behaviours and ways of working that teams expects and accepts.

Team social contracts have gained popularity in many agile technology teams, and are used particularly at the start of a project or when a new team is assembled.

The basics are this: the team gets together in a comfortable environment and openly discusses how they’d like the team to work. The ideas here shouldn’t be restricted. Some teams might focus on operational matters (arriving on time for meetings, acknowledging emails) while other teams may focus on interpersonal considerations (listen openly to ideas, team members should freely speak up when they have respectful criticisms).

The real power of a social contract comes from buy in by team members. If team members don’t respect the team’s social contract or the process by which it was prepared, then the contract wont work. A team where every member believes they’ve had input into creating this document can be a really powerful team. But be careful, as a leader, this should be something that you facilitate but are careful not to dominate:

Social contracts can be a powerful tool for a team, but a leader cannot mandate them. All members of the team must collectively form and share the contract. If the leader and team members do not believe in or buy-into the agreement, it won’t work. 

Christine M. Riordan and Kevin O’Brien, HBR

Team social contracts aren’t complicated documents. They shouldn’t be a manifesto. They shouldn’t be a HR handbook. They are usually a simple poster then displayed in a prominent area.

Running a session to create a social contract is usually straightforward, but there’s some tips and tricks you can make use of to make sure that your team feels respected and heard.

It is critical that this is a whole-of-team exercise. It is unlikely that absent team members will feel ownership, which will in turn dilute the power of the contract and the team. 

 Edwin Dando,

Team social contracts are best when a team is coming together to start a project, is a new team, or when a team knows of and expects the activity (the start of a new year, regularly). They don’t work well as an intervention to solve all the problems of an already dysfunctional team, and when used in this manner can lead to team members feeling ambushed or ganged up on.

Nonprofit teams often work with limited resources and very high workloads. A team social contract facilitated well can help remove friction and ensure accountability and transparency around expectations. For the nonprofit manager, that means more time delivering high quality service, and less time sweating the small stuff in regards to team management.

Download a free team social contract template with facilitator notes.

Team Social Contract: This activity helps build team trust, familiarity and (crucially) individual accountability.

Time: 30 minutes

Team: 2 – 20

Difficulty: Easy