Being explicit about how we work together

29 Mar 2019
Carrie Birmingham

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Have you faced a change in circumstances and realised you aren’t talking about how this changes your ways of working?  Have you started a project, knowing what it would take to succeed, but struggled to share this insight? Have you worked with people where your different approaches are stopping you from working together successfully?

As a manager, I know I have high standards and so can quickly find myself disappointed.  Having nashed my teeth and moaned about this repeating pattern, my coach helped me see that the common element of this problem was ‘me’ rather than ‘them’.  I realised that I was avoiding talking about my needs and expectations, and assuming my team would work this out.

Which on reflection, I could see, is a bit daft! I started to explore how I could improve and came across the idea of ‘contracting’ from the world of consulting.  This short blog outlines what I learnt and how it might apply to your work.  

What is it?

We bring expectations, hopes and fears to all relationships we create but rarely are these spoken about explicitly.  In many situations, problems arise between parties because they are expecting different things from each other and don’t talk about it.  

When we start new projects or roles, we naturally ask questions about WHAT needs doing, but rarely do we talk about HOW we want to do it.  

The act of ‘contracting’ makes the HOW explicit.  It focuses on the individual expectations we bring, because of our own preferences, or what the situation demands.  It can be especially useful at the start of a new relationship (individual or group), or when circumstances are changing.  This can feel daunting and so Peter Block suggests the following two simple headings:

  • Wants: this is a description of how you like to work (e.g. from home, with agendas in advance) and/or what you think is needed in the situation (e.g. devolved decision making, freedom to make mistakes)
  • Offers: this is a description of the support you can (and can’t) offer (e.g. advice on what you have done before, questions to test hypothesis)

There is a tendency to complicate things by making elaborate explanations and justifications when we make our needs explicit.  Partly because we fear being seen as rude or overly demanding. This can confuse the situation, so I learnt to make my statements: clear, simple and short.  By talking about how you will work, you are helping people get it right.  You can also surface problems before they happen e.g. a pet hate that stems from a previous boss.  

How do I do it?

In terms of the steps of contracting:

  • Explain to the individual or group that you would like to contract with them and why you think it’s necessary.
  • Invite them to be honest, specific and clear in the conversation and suggest they think about their own wants and offers and come to the conversation prepared.   This should be a two way dialogue.  
  • Do your own homework and think about the wants and offers you want to put on the table. 
  • Meet to discuss and compare notes and look for common ground and differences. Look to understand, rather than defend differences (which means asking questions)
  • Work together to agree (and keep a note) the expectations of each other and how you will work together
  • Review these regularly

For further advice or ideas about doing this or how you could use this idea, give us a call.