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Pressing Reset with a team contract.

A team contracting workshop to establish a shared understanding and respect.

How’s things? Yep, everything’s fine.

There’s a social dance that we often do when someone asks “how’s things?”

This is especially true in the workplace. We don’t offer up all the small niggles of our work life. Who would possibly want to listen to that? And if they did, they certainly wouldn’t ask you “how’s things?” again anytime soon.

The niggles

Niggles are small things which irritate or annoy us – the behaviours or habits from others that we’ve learned to tolerate. Left unnoticed, this background noise is much like the constant wearing down by children in a classroom. And before long, the inevitable will happen and you will crack.

This toleration is hardly conducive of a relaxed and productive working environment. So how can we address it?

I’ll be talking about contracting. More specifically “team contracting”, which is a workshop you can do with your team to help resolve those niggles.

“Contracting is simply a set of questions that provoke a conversation about what is expected from you and your direct reports.” – James Stanier


Used as a tool for managers during 1-2-1s with their direct reports, contracting provides a shared language and understanding for how two people can work and communicate with each other.

This is how the questions are typically structured:

  • What are the areas that you would like support with?
  • How would you like to receive feedback and support from me?
  • What could be a challenge of us working together?
  • How might we know if the support I’m offering isn’t going well?
  • How confidential is the content of our meetings?

If you’d like to learn more about contracting, James Stanier, my friend and VP of Engineering at Brandwatch, has written a great article on this in way more depth than I’ll go into – you can check it out here.

The point of this process is that different people deal with different situations differently. The more you understand the nuances of your team, the better communication becomes.

Team contracting

I found contracting hugely useful on an individual level. I wanted to bring that level of awareness across an entire team, and I wanted our team to be honest about the things we found ourselves tolerating, or even disliked. I also wanted them to identify and highlight what was great, and if issues were to arise, how we would deal with them together.

The objective of this workshop is to present the team with a set of questions. Each question presents a challenge or scenario. The team is invited to discuss how they, collectively, choose to deal with the scenario.

Here’s how I did it.

  1. The Interviews

Start out by interviewing each team member privately to discover their honest point of view on the team.

These are the questions:

  • What aspects of the team are working well? What are the positive behaviours?
  • What aspects of the team are not working so well? What are the negative behaviours?
  • What should the team START doing?
  • What should the team STOP doing?
  • What should the team CONTINUE doing?
  • What expectations do do you have of a team member?
  • When you need support, what are your expectations of the team?

Here’s a link to the contracting template I use: LINK.

  1. Analysis of interviews and contract structure
  • Common statements: Look through each interview answer to discover any similarities or patterns. Write them down as “common statements”. These might manifest themselves as a single word, or a short sentence. e.g. “We stress easily”, “There’s a lack of visibility on each other’s work”.
  • Contract themes: Analyse the “common statements” and extract 3-4 high level themes. These themes will form the main titles of the contract workshop. e.g. Support, Communication, Visibility.
  • Contract questions: Using the common patterns turn the short sentences into open questions. e.g. Within the analysis a common statement might be – “There’s a lack of visibility on each other’s work”. Take that and turn it into an open question, something like – “How can we be more visible with our work?” Once you have all questions ready and in their relevant themes, it’s time to plan a workshop.
  1. The contract workshop

GOAL To present the group with a set of questions for which they discuss themselves how to deal with them as a team.

DURATION Depending on the amount of questions discovered via the interviews, this process should take approximately 2-4hrs. I wouldn’t go over the 4hr mark, as in my experience people get too tired beyond this point.

HOW TO RUN The structure of the workshop is broken down into three sections: An introduction (5-10mins) The truths (5-10mins) The contract (2-4 hrs) Calculate around 10-12mins discussion per question.

The introduction

It’s important to get everyone on the team on board and invested in this workshop. Without everyone participating, speaking up and having a voice, decisions will only be made by a select few.

The introduction is the chance to emphasise this. The structure is: What are we doing? Why are we as a team doing this? Why is it important to the individual as well as the team? What will make this workshop a success?

The truths

Before cracking on with the questions, it’s good to remind the team of the current state of play. What are the positive behaviours and traits of the team, and what are the negative ones? This is also where to playback what the team values in a team member, as these are the traits and behaviours we can relate to as an individual.

The contract

Introduce the discovered themes to the team and explain that there will be a set of questions within each theme.

Present the first question to the team and facilitate the discussion, keeping an eye on time. Write notes, key points, and any actions that come out of the discussion.

Continue until all questions have been discussed. I would put more emphasis on keeping the team motivated and engaged over getting through every question. So if you’re running over, finish on a high and you can always revisit the leftover questions later.

Here’s the presentation deck for the contracting session: LINK

Playback and output

There are many ways to output the information, and you should choose based on what best suits your team. I chose to split the output into two sections:

  • Team behaviours
  • Workshop actions

I took all the decisions around our team behaviours and traits and turned them into a poster. The poster will hang on the studio wall as a reminder of the day and what we agreed to as a team. Beautiful poster design by the very talented Rebecca Harrison @eleventhleft

For the actions I sent an email to the team, listing them all out and set out to realise that as soon as I could.

Making it stick

Team contracting isn’t done once and forgotten. It must be visible, revisited and iterated on. Use it as way to reset the team, to allow them to remind themselves that they are in control of their own environment. And remember, niggles happen, but if we discuss them openly they don’t need to be tolerated.



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