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3 Steps to Implement Effective Meeting Ground Rules

Meeting norms, or ground rules, set the foundation for how a team collaborates. In a previous article, Advance Your Meeting Conversation with Norms, we explored general meeting norms for process, preparation, and communication, as well as norms for specific types of meetings, like brainstorming and decision-making. In this post, we explore how to make norms an ongoing meeting practice. Thoughtful ground rules, specific to each team and meeting, create and sustain an effective meeting practice which fosters open communication.

Why establishing meeting ground rules is crucial to meeting effectiveness

Clear meeting norms align participants’ expectations for how to behave in a meeting. They are especially powerful for encouraging new or atypical behavior. For example, if your team struggles with staying on topic, establish a norm of “Recognize when the conversation has wandered off topic and bring the group back to focus.”

If ground rules are not specified and agreed to at the start of a meeting, people will act according to their own preferences or what was previously acceptable in this organization’s context. When prior behaviors are not desired or when each person has different expectations for what constitutes appropriate behavior, effective communication is hindered. By focusing on meeting behavior rather than a specific person, norms empower the meeting leader and participants to redirect behavior without being “the bad guy.”

Still not sure you need meeting norms? This company didn’t think they did either - until they discovered how establishing meeting ground rules dramatically improved meeting effectiveness.

3 steps to implementing meeting ground rules that last

Norms are not only for meetings; they can also help build a successful team culture. With some planning, you, too, can build norms into your team meetings and watch your meetings and your company transform. Use the following three steps to get started.

1. Experiment

There is no “perfect time” to introduce meeting norms to your team. Anytime is a good time, as long as you start with small steps. Decide which meetings might most benefit from norms by identifying existing meeting challenges.

Tip #1: Use these questions to help you reflect

Think about your brainstorming, decision-making, alignment, and other types of meetings. Ask yourself:

  • Which of these meetings would benefit from norms that promote a different kind of behavior that what is currently happening?

  • Are there meetings which suffer from challenging situations or behaviors such as lack of structure, not starting or ending on time, dominant participants, interruptions, or getting sidetracked?

Tip #2: Introduce norms in select meetings

Once you’ve chosen a meeting in which to integrate norms, explain your reasoning to the team. A great first step is to share this article as meeting pre-work!

2. Engage the team to contribute to and agree on meeting ground rules

“A set of behaviors aren’t your team’s ground rules until everyone on the team agrees to use them.” -- Roger Schwarz

In a quest to develop high performance teams, mutual accountability is crucial. When everyone is involved in co-creating the meeting norms, they tend to feel more ownership over the process and end result. Be sure to state each norm clearly so everyone knows what it means.

Tip #1: Use existing resources or create your own set of norms

Start by providing the team with a list of existing meeting norms and ask them to choose the ones most relevant to the team or a particular meeting. Or, start from scratch by writing possible norms on post-it notes or a shared document for the team to use as a discussion launching point. Note: a good rule of thumb is no more than 6 norms per meeting. Too many norms become hard to remember and follow.

Tip #2: Review the ground rules and keep them visibly posted

You don’t need to select new ground rules at the beginning of every meeting. Once the team is familiar with the concept, you can select ground rules that are most appropriate for the meeting at hand and review them at the start of a meeting. It helps to ask, “Does anyone want to offer an additional ground rule or make any modifications to the ones proposed?” This ensures agreement. Consider posting the norms on the wall or writing them on paper in front of you. This makes it easier for the group to remember the norms as the conversation flows.

3. Hold each other accountable

Implementation is key. If the team doesn’t uphold these norms, then it doesn’t matter that you’ve done the work of creating them. Refer to the norms during meetings to remind each other and ensure long-term adoption. This is a collaborative effort. As Schwarz says, “You can’t expect that the formal leader alone can identify every time a team member is acting at odds with a ground rule.” It’s the team’s shared responsibility to help each other adhere to the meeting ground rules.

Tip #1: When someone is not following the ground rules, gently remind them

If someone is acting incongruously to the meeting ground rules, gently let them know. For example, if people are talking over each other, remind them of the norm to let one person talk without being interrupted. Say something like, “Hey, Taylor, we agreed to let one person talk at a time. Why don’t we go around the table so we each get a chance to share our thoughts and be heard?”

Tip #2: Use the norms to empower yourself

Norms can embolden your own behavior in meetings. If you want to offer some challenging ideas, bring up the norm of playing “devil’s advocate.” You can say, “We agreed people should feel free to play devil’s advocate, so I’d like to offer some controversial ideas. OK? So here they are.”

Meeting ground rules lead to better meetings

While participants may initially chafe at meeting ground rules, the truth is that collectively created, agreed upon, and implemented norms create a container for mutual respect and expression that can ultimately lead to a greater good.

Ready to create some meeting ground rules? Share this article with fellow meeting leaders and participants to make it a norm to have norms! Let us know your norm challenges!

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