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Making Agreements: Strategies for Drafting and Keeping Commitments

Jordan and her manager Alex had a strong working relationship. Over the past year, Jordan had taken on additional responsibilities, consistently exceeded targets, and received praise for her innovative problem solving. Given her strong performance, Jordan was under the impression that a promotion was imminent. This belief was bolstered by several informal conversations with Alex, where the prospect of advancement was discussed enthusiastically. 


When the time for promotions approached, Jordan’s excitement turned to confusion, then frustration. Despite her hard work and the seemingly positive signals, the promotion did not materialize. Upon confronting Alex, Jordan discovered that the promotion was not only contingent on performance but also on the availability of a senior position and budget approvals, factors that had never been clearly communicated to Jordan. This oversight led to a significant misunderstanding, causing tension between Jordan and Alex. Jordan felt misled and undervalued, while Alex was surprised by Jordan’s assumptions.


Realizing the root of the conflict stemmed from assumptions rather than explicit expectations, both parties agreed to meet to address the issue. During the meeting, they acknowledged the importance of establishing clear agreements, especially regarding career progression. Together, they outlined a clear plan for Jordan’s career development, including specific performance goals, potential barriers to promotion, and a timeline for reevaluation. This plan was documented and agreed upon by both Jordan and Alex, ensuring that both parties had a clear understanding of the conditions affecting Jordan’s career advancement. Moving forward, they committed to regular check-ins to discuss progress and adjust the plan as needed, reinforcing the value of clear agreements in aligning expectations.


This story, based on real events, is a reminder that assumptions, no matter how seemingly well-founded, cannot substitute for explicit agreements. Have you ever experienced a misunderstanding due to a lack of clear agreements? How did it impact your relationship or project?


As we explore the nature of agreements, it’s crucial to understand that they are not merely bureaucratic formalities. Instead, they serve as foundational elements that ensure mutual understanding, set clear expectations, and outline the course of action for achieving specific goals.


What is an agreement? 

An agreement is communication that establishes expectations between two or more parties.


Most agreements share foundational principles such as mutual consent, purpose-driven objectives, a negotiation process, and mechanisms for conflict resolution. Agreements can differ in scale, scope, formality, enforcement mechanisms, stakeholder representation, complexity of interests, and public versus private nature. 


Formal agreements are typically documented, providing a structured framework for the relationships and transactions they govern. Examples include:


  • International treaties like the Magna Carta, which laid foundational principles for constitutional governance.

  • Employment contracts that define the terms of employment relationships.

  • Statements of work which detail the specific tasks and objectives of a project.

  • Rental agreements that outline the responsibilities of landlords and tenants.

  • Service agreements that specify the terms under which services will be provided.


These agreements are characterized by their detailed nature, specifying the obligations of all parties involved to ensure clarity.


Informal agreements, on the other hand, are often verbal and based on mutual understanding or trust. They play a crucial role in daily interactions and social functioning, such as making plans with friends, agreeing on the distribution of household chores, or adhering to workplace etiquette. These agreements are typically governed by social norms and the expectations of the involved parties. Informal agreements are essential for smooth interpersonal relationships and the maintenance of harmony in both personal and professional settings.


What are the functions of workplace agreements?


Agreements that we make at work span a spectrum from informal understandings to formal contracts. Leaders can significantly enhance the effectiveness of their organizations by developing a range of agreements that cover key operational areas. 


  • Roles and Responsibilities: Defining roles and responsibilities helps leaders prevent overlap and ensure that no critical tasks are neglected. 

  • Performance: Establishing clear performance expectations helps all team members understand what success looks like, aligning efforts with organizational goals. 

  • Professional Development: Agreements on professional development, which include training plans tailored to both individual aspirations and organizational needs, promote continuous learning and adaptation. 

  • Communication: Implementing specific communication protocols, such as choosing the appropriate channels for information exchange, helps increase the likelihood of effective communication. 

  • Decision-making: Clarifying decision-making processes, whether through authority, consensus, majority, or delegation, streamlines action and reduces ambiguity. 

  • Conflict Resolution: Proactively setting up conflict resolution mechanisms provides a constructive framework for addressing disagreements, maintaining team cohesion. 

  • Feedback: Establishing regular feedback and evaluation rhythms helps maintain clarity on performance and expectations. 


By creating these agreements, leaders not only structure a more efficient and harmonious work environment but also foster a culture of transparency, accountability, and growth.


How do you create agreements?


When drafting agreements, clarity and foresight are key. Begin by defining the purpose of the agreement, ensuring that all parties have a shared understanding of its goals. Specificity is your ally here; detail roles, responsibilities, timelines, and deliverables to eliminate ambiguity. Incorporate conditions and contingencies to address potential changes in circumstances, ensuring the agreement remains relevant and adaptable. It’s also crucial to define what constitutes success and fulfillment of the agreement, as well as the steps or consequences if the agreement is not met. What follows is a list of topics and example questions that could be helpful in guiding your conversation.


Topics

Questions to Answer

Purpose for Question

Support Systems

How can we support each other in fulfilling each of our parts of the agreement?


Encourage a cooperative approach to meeting the agreement, recognizing that support and encouragement can enhance compliance and satisfaction.


Communication Strategies


What communication methods will we use to address concerns in our agreement?

Establish a clear and constructive way to discuss issues, reducing the likelihood of misunderstandings or escalation.


Mechanisms for Revisiting and Renegotiating Agreements

How and when will we revisit our agreement to ensure it still meets our needs and circumstances?


Allow for flexibility and adjustments as situations change, ensuring the agreement remains relevant and fair.


Conflict Resolution Methods


How do we ensure transparency and honesty in our interactions, especially when addressing issues related to our agreement?  What happens when we don’t live up to our expectations?


Foster trust and openness, which are crucial for addressing and overcoming breaches in agreements.

Consequences for Breaking the Agreement

What are the consequences if one or both of us fail to meet the expectations detailed in our agreement?


Outline the repercussions of not adhering to the agreement, which can range from taking corrective actions to reevaluating the relationship.


Personal Growth and Change

What are the repercussions of not adhering to the agreement, ranging from taking corrective actions to reevaluating the relationship?


Acknowledge that individuals evolve over time, and agreements may need to adapt to reflect these changes.


When should agreements be established?


Whenever possible, establish agreements at the outset. Establishing clear agreements at the beginning of a relationship or project offers numerous benefits, laying the groundwork for successful interactions and outcomes. Included below are some of the key advantages:


Clarity and Direction: Clear agreements provide all parties with a shared understanding of expectations, roles, and responsibilities. This clarity reduces ambiguity, ensuring that everyone is aligned with the goals and objectives from the start, which is crucial for effective collaboration and project execution.


Prevention of Conflicts: Many disputes arise from misunderstandings or misaligned expectations. By setting clear agreements upfront, potential conflicts can be anticipated and prevented, as all parties have a mutual understanding of the terms and conditions of their relationship or project.


Efficiency and Productivity: With clear agreements, time and resources can be allocated more efficiently, as everyone knows what needs to be done, by whom, and by when. This avoids duplication of effort and ensures that efforts are directed toward the most critical tasks, enhancing productivity.


Trust and Confidence: Clear agreements build trust among parties. When individuals know what to expect from each other and can rely on those expectations being met, it fosters a positive environment where trust can grow. This trust is essential for effective teamwork and partnership.


Accountability and Responsibility: Well-defined agreements make accountability and responsibility clear. When roles and expectations are explicitly outlined, it is easier to hold individuals and teams accountable for their contributions, which can motivate all involved to meet their commitments.


Flexibility and Adaptability: Although it may seem counterintuitive, clear agreements can also provide the framework within which flexibility and adaptability are possible. By understanding the baseline expectations, parties can more easily negotiate changes or adjustments as needed, responding to unforeseen circumstances without derailing the project or relationship.


Improved Communication: Establishing agreements encourages open and honest communication from the beginning. It necessitates dialogue about needs, expectations, and potential challenges, setting a precedent for ongoing communication throughout the relationship or project.


Enhanced Relationship Quality: In both professional and personal contexts, clear agreements contribute to the overall quality of relationships. They demonstrate respect for each other’s needs and boundaries and create a foundation for mutual support and understanding.


Better Outcomes: Ultimately, the clear definition of expectations, responsibilities, and goals leads to better outcomes. Projects are more likely to be completed successfully and on time, and relationships are more likely to be satisfying and productive for all involved.


How can you create agreements in an established relationship or project?


Creating agreements in an established relationship can be crucial for maintaining harmony and ensuring mutual satisfaction as circumstances evolve. Sometimes, it’s not feasible or practical to establish agreements at the beginning of a relationship, necessitating new agreements as the relationship matures or as new situations arise. Here are two interpersonal contexts in which this might occur:


Marital Agreements: As marriages evolve, partners may find that their initial understandings no longer fit their current situation or aspirations. For example, early in the relationship, partners might not have discussed financial planning in depth, but as they build their lives together, creating a financial agreement that addresses savings, investments, and spending becomes essential.


Family Dynamics: As children grow and family dynamics change, new agreements may need to be established to address expectations and responsibilities. This could involve agreements about chores, curfews, or educational expectations for teenagers, or care arrangements for elderly family members. 


Similarly, projects that start with a broad goal but whose specific objectives, scope, and requirements are expected to evolve over time. As the project’s details become clearer and more defined, creating an agreement that captures these refined objectives and scopes can ensure alignment and clarity among all stakeholders.


Workplace Changes: When an organization pivots or restructures to adapt to market demands, harness new opportunities, or address competitive pressures, new agreements are often necessary. As the organization navigates this period of change, the roles of existing teams and the introduction of new departments may lead to overlaps or gaps in responsibilities, creating the need for clear definitions of authority and workflow processes.


Startups: Early-stage startups often begin with a focus on product development and market fit, with less attention to internal structures. As the startup grows and the business model becomes clearer, establishing agreements on equity distribution, roles of founders, and governance structures is essential for sustainability and attracting investment.


In these scenarios, the nature of the relationship or project necessitates flexibility and openness to change. Establishing agreements at a later stage allows us to incorporate learned insights, evolved goals, and clarified expectations.


However, establishing agreements at a later stage in a relationship or project, compared to doing so at the beginning, presents unique challenges and considerations. Here are key differences and important aspects to keep in mind:


Reflecting Evolved Understandings: By the time you’re ready to formalize an agreement, all parties will have more information and a better understanding of the situation, goals, and potential challenges. Agreements should reflect this evolved understanding, incorporating flexibility and provisions for future adjustments.


Documenting Implicit Understandings: Over time, informal or implicit understandings and expectations may have developed. It’s crucial to openly discuss and document these to ensure they are accurately captured in the agreement, avoiding assumptions that could lead to future conflicts.


Accounting for Power Dynamics: As relationships and projects evolve, so too can the power dynamics between involved parties. It’s important to approach agreement discussions with an awareness of these dynamics to ensure fair and equitable terms.


Handling Resistance to Formalization: Some parties may be resistant to formalizing agreements after operating informally for some time, fearing it may alter the relationship or dynamics. Addressing concerns and emphasizing the protective and clarifying nature of agreements can help mitigate resistance.


Incorporating Lessons Learned: The advantage of later-stage agreements is the ability to incorporate lessons learned from the initial stages. This can lead to more realistic and practical agreements that are better suited to the actual working or relational dynamics.


Ensuring Clarity and Specificity: Given the evolved complexity of the project or relationship by this stage, it’s vital to ensure the agreement is clear, specific, and detailed. Avoid vague language that could lead to interpretations that diverge from the intended agreement.


Communication and Negotiation: Effective communication and negotiation skills are crucial when establishing agreements at a later stage. Parties need to be prepared to listen, compromise, and advocate for their needs and interests constructively.


Future-Proofing the Agreement: Given the dynamics that led to the later establishment of the agreement, including mechanisms for regular review and updates can help the agreement remain relevant and effective over time.


Establishing agreements at a later stage requires a careful balance between formalizing the relationship or project’s terms and maintaining the flexibility that has allowed it to develop and adapt. It’s about capturing the essence of what has worked, rectifying what hasn’t, and setting a clear path forward that respects the contributions and needs of all involved.



What happens when agreements are not kept?


When agreements are not kept, it can lead to a range of negative outcomes, including mistrust, conflict, and disruption in relationships or projects. Addressing these situations effectively requires a thoughtful approach to renegotiation. This final section outlines a framework for effectively addressing situations where agreements are not upheld.


Identification and Communication


  1. Acknowledge the Breach: Whether you’ve realized an agreement has been broken by yourself or another party, the first step is acknowledging that the agreement has not been kept. This recognition is crucial for addressing the issue directly.

  2. Open the Dialogue: Initiate a conversation to discuss the broken agreement. This should be done in a manner that is open, non-confrontational, and aimed at understanding the reasons behind the unmet agreement. It’s important to express the impact of the broken agreement on the project, relationship, or organizational goals, whether you’re the one who broke the agreement or the one affected by it.


Resolution and Renegotiation


  1. Explore the Underlying Issues: Identify any external factors, misunderstandings, or changes in circumstances that led to the broken agreement. Understanding these elements is essential for crafting an effective resolution.

  2. Apologize and Take Responsibility: If you’re responsible for the broken agreement, apologize and take responsibility for your actions. If the other party is responsible, allow them the opportunity to do the same. This step is foundational for maintaining or rebuilding trust.

  3. Negotiate a Solution: Collaboratively work towards a solution or adjustment to the original agreement. Consider setting a new, realistic agreement based on the current context and lessons learned from the situation.

  4. Formalize the New Agreement: Document the revised agreement to ensure all parties have a clear, mutual understanding of the new agreement. This documentation serves as a reference for accountability.

Prevention and Moving Forward


  1. Establish Preventative Measures: Discuss and agree on strategies to prevent future broken agreements. This might involve regular check-ins, clearer communication channels, or adjustments to expectations based on evolving circumstances.

  2. Reaffirm Commitment: Both parties should reaffirm their commitment to the new agreement and to working together constructively. This reaffirmation is crucial for restoring confidence in the relationship or partnership.

  3. Review and Adjust as Needed: Agree to periodically review the agreement to ensure it remains relevant and effective. Be prepared to make further adjustments as projects, relationships, and circumstances evolve.

 

Making and keeping agreements stands as an essential life skill. The essence of agreements transcends the mere act of reaching them; it lies in the clarity, communication, and commitment they embody. Whether formal or informal, agreements serve as the bedrock of trust and the blueprint for expectations, guiding us through the unpredictable situations.


Questions for Reflection

  • What agreements in your professional life may benefit from reassessment or updating to reflect your current goals and circumstances?

  • As your personal relationships evolve, are there informal agreements that now require formalization or revision to ensure mutual understanding moving forward?

  • Looking at your current projects or collaborations, what assumptions have you made that might be better addressed through explicit agreements?

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