Generating and Clarifying the Rules of Engagement

December 14, 2016 9:45 am

Most meeting leaders use norms or rules of engagement to referee meeting behaviour, but what exactly are these rules or “norms” and how do we best generate them? Merriam-Webster defines a norm as:

Norm (noun)
2 :  a principle of right action binding upon the members of a group and serving to guide, control or regulate acceptable behavior.

As facilitators, when we generate norms we’re helping the group define and agree to a list of actions that will guide or regulate behavior. What’s the most effective way of generating this list?

Some groups and situations better suit the facilitator “telling” them the norms. Here are some circumstances when the facilitator should ‘tell’ norms:

  • Large groups of greater than 20 people – it can be difficult to build consensus in a timely manner
  • Dysfunctional groups – when direction is required
  • When the team has limited time to spend defining guidelines
  • Orienting new members on the group’s existing norms
  • Providing a norm or two as an example or starting point

Usually, though we like to have groups generate their own norms to help ensure buy-in. Here’s our five-step process for groups to come up with their own rules of engagement:

STEP 1 (5 minutes):

  • Review the ‘purpose’ for setting norms (e.g. to work collaboratively and effectively) and then test for clarity
  • Review the ‘outcome’ or results expected by the end of norm setting (e.g. a list of agreed to meeting guidelines.) Remind the group that they are fully empowered to decide on what norms they intend to follow
  • Review your role as facilitator – to help the group keep to its agreed to norms and to intervene when a norm is broken
  • Before commencing the norming exercise quickly overview the ‘process’ below

STEP 2 (2 minutes):

  • Review the rules of brainstorming (i.e. all ideas are valid, all ideas will be captured, no interruptions or debates)

STEP 3 (5 minutes):

  • Going round robin, have each member share a meeting behaviour that makes him/her hate meetings or keeps him/her up at night

STEP 4 (5 minutes):

  • For each negative behaviour have the group identify and discuss 1 – 2 norms that, if followed, would stop the behaviour from emerging

STEP 5 (3 minutes):

  • With the final list, test for agreement
  • Adjust norms where there is disagreement OR eliminate them
  • Retest to ensure a consensus among the group with the remaining norms (e.g. I can live with it)

Once norms have been defined, how do you gauge the quality of the norms being generated? After all, you’ll be relying on these rules of engagement to guide your interventions when dysfunctional behaviours threaten to derail your meeting.

Ensuring Norms are Meaningful

Groups often come up with ‘value based’ norms, such as: act respectfully toward each other. This type of norm is difficult to referee and may cause confusion as respect tends to mean different things to different people. It’s therefore much easier for the facilitator to referee norms that are concrete, such as one person talks at a time. We always suggest converting these ‘value based’ norms (e.g. respect, integrity, etc.) by asking questions that encourages participants to reframe values into concrete behaviours.

Using the example above, you could ask the group: “imagine you’re a group of participants acting respectful with one another, what concrete behaviours or actions would you be demonstrating that shows respect?” Participants will start to give concrete behaviours like: one person talking at a time. Make sure you flipchart these immediately. Once the final list is created, test for agreement to ensure the group can live with the defined behaviours.

Let us know what norms or guidelines you use to ensure your meetings are as productive as possible.

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