Rules of engagement

Catherine Joyce argues that good working relationships centre on managing expectations and establishing agreed rules of engagement.

The need to ‘manage expectations’ often becomes blindingly obvious only after a gap has come to light. It’s often not noticed beforehand. When rules of engagement become strained, it shows in the interactions and conversations, which may shift from being friendly and cooperative, to abrupt and defensive. 

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This gap can arise because assumptions are made ‘that we’re on the same page when we’re not’; that ‘someone has briefed me when they haven’t’ or when someone thinks ‘it’s obvious’ when it isn’t.  As soon as you sense the gap, there’s a feeling that you don’t quite trust the person as much as you used to.  Here’s an example.

Mark and Shameer worked together well for two years as peers. When Mark was promoted to line manager, the relationships between them shifted. Mark had trouble finding the balance of being friendly and being the boss. Affected by tension between them, Shameer’s performance fell off noticeably. Mark moved from being a co-operative peer to being a bossy boss. Each thought the issue lay with the other person. Trust was strained and working together was difficult.

Conflict like this arises between individuals who have differing expectations for each other and this can happen whether or not a shift in role is experienced.  If ‘clarity’ is not achieved, relationships and performance can be affected long term unless something stops the rot.

By sitting down and agreeing ‘rules of engagement’ Mark and Shameer could discuss and agree how to work well together, in the new set up.   

Set up a healthy ‘rules of engagement’ agreement

The purpose is to set up and hold an intelligent conversation that yields greater clarity and joint agreement going forward.

  • Enter the conversation with the intention to ‘listen to connect’; rather than to pushing your views onto others. Connecting enables you to find out new information, gain new insights while you share and explore together
  • Be aware of being ‘addicted to being right’ because it closes down contributions from others; it causes conflict within teams and makes you look like you’re ‘grandstanding’.  Instead, maximise the valuable opportunity this conversation offers.
  • Prepare. With a clean sheet of paper and pen, draw a line down middle – giving two columns. Head one column ‘What I need & expect from you’ and the other ‘What you can expect from me?’ Twenty minutes getting clear will be time well spent.  It will enable you to have a conversation that sets the working relationship up for success.  
  • Reach out to the other person you wish to ‘manage expectations’ with. Let them know you want to explore and cooperate on developing a set of shared Rules of Engagement. Ask for their cooperation.
  • Ask them to prepare and let them know you’ll both share findings. This may put you, them or both out of your comfort zones but better that than continued distrust, dysfunction and poor performance.
  • Sit down, listen, talk, and share. Through two-way dialogue come up with a set of shared ‘rules of engagement’ that you will both work to. This will be your touchstone when things change and it can be renewed at any time. Expectations will need tweaking over time – that’s a good thing. It means that lines of communication remain open and that trust stays in place.
  • Build a strong foundation of trusting relationships at the start of a project or process forms a great foundation to the working relationship.  It means that when things get tough, that solid foundation will pay dividends. 

Rebuilding trust and clarity takes effort and time and may well be the difference between retaining or losing the person. 

Assumptions to avoid when working with other’s expectations.   

  • ‘It’s obvious, isn’t it ?  I shouldn’t have to spell it out’ (it isn’t and you do)
  • That because you said it,  they heard it, they get it, they agree (they don’t, they might not)
  • You said it once, they’ll remember it (they won’t)
  • You know them you don’t need to be explicit about it (you do)
  • ‘I’ll do it when we do the Annual Review’.  (do it now, review it then)
  • They can pick it up from their colleagues –( it’s too big a risk)
  • It’s not much different to how we worked on the last project/last year (it’s not the same)
  • They know us, they don’t need you to be explicit (you do, they do)
  • Others will know intuitively and accurately what you need and expect of them (good luck with that one).

In conclusion, finding the confidence, finding the time, finding the commitment to discuss ‘Rules of Engagement’ helps both parties manage expectations. It takes courage. It engenders trust.  It enables misunderstandings, assumptions, expectations and aspirations to be clarified and negotiated; and most importantly of all – it sets the working relationship up for success.



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