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Create A Social Contract That’s More Than Just Lip Service

This summer, I spent an entire month interacting with our team in Amsterdam through a range of activities and exercises.

The idea was to take a step back and do a deep internal alignment. One of the major outcomes of this trip was the co-creation of our social contract.

As an organization, it was important for us to reflect upon why we exist, how we plan to impact the world with our ideas, what are our main initiatives, how we prioritize and deal with them in our daily lives.

The social contract isn’t a business negotiation and neither is it a legal document. Instead, it is a tacit agreement between members of a group to behave in a certain way with certain privileges and duties.

It’s an integral part of the concept of democracy - whether it’s a nation or a company, and by nature it’s idealistic.

When people in an organization agree to work together, it’s an ideal that each of them agrees to strive towards.

An Exercise In Deep-Diving Into Ourselves

To encourage such an intense look into ourselves, we came up with a set of seven questions for all participants to answer:

1. What are the strengths / skills I bring into this team?
2. My Green Button: What do I need in order to perform really well?
3. My Red Button: What actions of others do I dislike?
4. What are the areas in which I can develop myself?
5. How can you help me improve in those areas?
6. What are the typical misunderstandings that people have with me?
7. How should someone handle me when there’s conflict/tension/stress?

Once they answered these seven questions, all participants had to pick an image that best represented them. We allowed about 15-20 minutes for the participants to write down their answers and to choose an image. Then, we put all the answers onto a shared Google doc and Google presentation, co-created during the course of this activity.

Each participant had an uninterrupted five minutes to present and explain their answers and the image they chose for themselves.

The first draft of the social contract was drawn from the answers people gave during this activity. The exercise helped everyone understand the key elements of working with each other.

Personal Roadmaps, Perspectives And More

It gave everyone a chance to talk about what was important to them, what created negative feelings in them, their contribution to the team from their point of view and the places where they could improve themselves.

But the most important takeaway from this exercise was the personal roadmap on the best way to handle a person when there’s a conflict with them. With that, you’ve simply removed the need for team members to guess or find their own way to deal with someone when there’s a conflict. They now know exactly how to handle the person in question and that’s a very powerful piece of information to have.

The questions were crafted to be very clear and I think they helped the team members succinctly express what were the best ways to work with them as individuals.

The whole process was done in a very informal and fun way with people being very open-minded and even cracking jokes. It was critical to ensure the team thought of the exercise as something cool. You need to be flexible about the way you conduct the exercise - a very formal, structured exercise won’t work.

If every person on the team is to perform to the best of their abilities, then the team needs to follow certain behavioral principles and guidelines. So, it’s highly important to explicitly discuss the terms of the social contract and have them condensed into an easily understandable format that everybody agrees with.

There can be no room for hidden thoughts or doubts when it comes to the social contract and the only way to make sure it’s effective is to co-create the document with the entire team.

People, Not Pieces of A Puzzle

At the end of this exercise, we had successfully created a rudimentary version of our social contract, made sure everyone was onboard and had multiple interactive sessions about what worked and what didn’t.

It’s important to understand that the social contract cannot be one that’s set in stone. Instead, it needs to be a live document that members of the team can come back to, and even challenge, whenever there’s a lack of alignment.

The social contract is a great tool that enables teams to deeply understand their motivations as individuals as well as groups. And that can happen only when they feel it’s safe enough to be transparent.

Since it’s fundamental to democratic leadership that people view coworkers as not just pieces of a puzzle but as real people with goals and aspirations, it’s a good idea to revisit the social contract at least once a year.

Even if an entire revision of the contract isn’t in order, it’s always good to revisit the document to ensure that people are acting according to what was agreed upon and that there isn’t any misalignment.

Keep in mind that anything co-created is going to take longer and there may be team members who feel uncomfortable with openly sharing their deepest aspirations.

However, the practice of co-creating your company’s social contract will help coworkers view each other in a holistic way and integrates the team on a deeper level because they now know what each of them finds meaningful.

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