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When Things Fall Apart, Principles Can Bring Them Back Together

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My daughter Kira recently lost a client due to a lack of principles. It’s not that she didn’t have principles, and nor was her client lacking principles. It’s that they had never agreed to principles up front on a vital issue. And therein lies the rub.

Here’s her story: Kira recently caught a cold from a toddler in her care. Since she’s a full-time college student patching together multiple part-time gigs to help pay for tuition and expenses, she couldn’t risk getting sick again. So the night before her next assignment, Kira contacted her client to inquire about her child’s health. Her client was “outraged” that Kira would consider “refusing to care for a sick child.” After a few minutes of an emotionally-charged conversation, they agreed that Kira would delay her return by a few days, since her client’s schedule is quite flexible.

The exchange left Kira distraught. When she reflected on what made the conversation so upsetting, she realized she felt disrespected, with her concerns disregarded, by someone who had repeatedly praised her for being such a wonderful caregiver. Her client, it seemed to Kira, was placing more value on the inconvenience Kira’s temporary absence would cause over a concern for Kira’s health. That’s when Kira realized: Unless they could agree on principles about how to deal with illness in the future, the arrangement may not work. Kira emailed her client to suggest a few principles that could help them navigate through similar situations in the future. The response was swift: Her client thanked Kira for her service and let her go.

Rather than being upset, Kira was relieved. That’s because she realized that if they couldn’t agree on principles that would recognize and balance the needs of all, the relationship was ultimately untenable. Kira’s plight prompted me to write this edition of Communique, where I reflect on the importance of recognizing the need for shared principles, and offer tips for creating principles that can act as guideposts for making tough tradeoffs and important decisions that everyone can live with more easily.

  • Don’t put off for tomorrow what you must do today. As soon as you sense some sort of imbalance or a possible misalignment of values, stop to consider what’s really going on. Are you operating with different facts or assumptions? Have you validated that your expectations of each other are fair and realistic? Sometimes all it takes is a quick discussion to get back on track. (E.g., “It sounds like you’re planning to present for our team. We had talked about each of us presenting. Let’s talk through the pros and cons so we can agree on the best approach.”) And sometimes you’ll need a longer conversation that leads to an agreed-upon operating principle such as: Team members closest to the research present their findings.
  • Discuss why a principle is called for. Maybe your team has reached an impasse, or perhaps you’ve noticed an extraordinary amount of tension and friction. Let’s take a team whose members depend on each other to get their own work done. If members haven’t agreed as to exactly how and when, they will share progress reports, they may be operating with incomplete or inaccurate information, which can cause delays, frustration and quite possibly, an erosion of trust. As a team, discuss the symptoms that suggest principles are needed, and then work together to create them. The more people acknowledge that problems exist, the more likely they are to uphold the new principles.
  • Head problems off at the pass. Nothing gets a new team out of the gate faster like the creation of shared operating principles. Anticipate aspects of collaboration and communication that will be especially important for your team, and make these a priority. (Typical examples: team communications, team meetings, stakeholder communications, escalation of issues, making decisions, status reporting, surfacing issues or asking for help.) The hard work needed to create shared principles is best done across an actual table, versus trying to tackle this remotely, when real-time conversations can be hard to come by. If team members work virtually and can’t come together in one place, you’ll want to break up related conversations into smaller chunks (see tips below).
  • Beware of principles of people that sound great but aren’t easy to put into practice. When people fail to talk through the real-life implications of their principles, they may each have a different idea about how, exactly, to make it a reality. For example, a principle like: “All team members have easy access to relevant, accurate and timely project-related information at any time” sounds logical. The team then needs to dig deeper, answering such questions as: What do we mean by “easy?” Which information is relevant for which people? Can people access this from anywhere, or just while onsite? Determining exactly what will change as a result, and who will be affected, is a vital and often the most difficult and frequently overlooked part of the principles development process.
  • Everyone needs to hold each other accountable. Principles only mean something if everyone agrees to live by them and are willing to hold everyone on the team accountable. Some transgressions merit more attention than others. For example, if the team has agreed on the principle that all are fully present during team meetings, and some multitask their way through every conversation, everyone should feel comfortable  about calling out the disruptive team members, with a reminder about why this principle is so important. Depending on your relationship, you may call them out in private instead. But if you’re the team leader, realize that if you make “course corrections” in private, other team members may assume that you didn’t notice, didn’t care, or that these principles really aren’t that important to you.
  • Start somewhere and go from there. But start. Creating principles isn’t fast or easy work. But it’s essential. Poll people in advance, asking something like: In what areas will clear principles have the greatest impact  in our ability to collaborate and communicate effectively? Bring the list to your team meeting, and discuss the definition and purpose of a principle, why it’s needed, and share examples of good principles. Ask for groups of two to three people to take turns drafting principles for priority areas, and then ask them to share their work before the next meeting, so everyone is prepared to make suggestions and discuss the implications for their work.  Team meetings can be a great place to start.
  • Test, validate and refine, and create some more. Some principles just don’t work as planned. That’s why it’s important that everyone reflect as to whether a principle makes sense as worded. For example, a principle that calls for everyone to post documents in a central area may have been wishful thinking, even though at the time it seemed plausible. Set aside time at team meetings to observe how principles are working and suggesting areas for new principles. The creation of shared principles is not a once-and-done event. It’s an ongoing process.

At the heart of it, when we do the work of creating shared principles, we are communicating our values and beliefs in ways that help us decide how (or if) we will work together. In the case of my daughter, as she created the principles she hoped that she and her client could agree on, she realized that their values were so misaligned that the arrangement ultimately would not work. In her case, it was an event (the illness of her client’s child) that suddenly sparked the need for shared principles. Don’t wait until an unexpected situation forces your team to cobble together principles under duress. Anticipate where you will most need principles, and start there.

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Related articles:

Our principles primer (downloadable PDF file) offers tips for creating sound principles that can drive behavior and help make difficult decisions and tough trade-offs. Here you’ll see examples of principles that miss the mark, and ways to make them stronger.

Jumpstart creating team principles with this job aid (downloadable PDF file), which uses virtual meetings as an example. I designed this for the second module of my virtual workshop series, Leading Global Teams

Team charter checklist (downloadable PDF file), useful for new teams, almost-new teams, or existing teams who want to create shared principles in places where they’re most needed first.

Making Decisions That Stick (downloadable PDF white paper), guidelines for making well-informed decisions that people can agree on and commit to