29 November, 2021

Team Ground Rules: Creating the Right Framework for Team Success

By Mike Clayton

At the start of a project, it pays to invest time in setting your team up for success. And, sometimes, you will want to create a set of team ground rules.

In this article, we’ll examine:

  • what they are
  • how to set them up and communicate them
  • how to create an envrionment where people respect them, and
  • what to do if someone steps outside your ground rules

This article is inspired by Task 12 of Domain 1 of the PMI’s 2021 Project Management Professional (PMP) exam syllabus.

The PMP Examination Content Outline (ECO) is split into three Domains. The fist Domain, People, has 14 Tasks. Task 12 is Define Team Ground Rules. It has three enablers:

  • Communicate organizational principles with team and external stakeholders
  • Establish an environment that fosters adherence to the ground rules
  • Manage and rectify ground rule violations
Team Ground Rules: Creating the Right Framework for Team Success

Our Ground Rules Agenda

I have split our Ground Rules agenda into five parts:

  1. What are Ground Rules
  2. How to Define Your Team Ground Rules
  3. How to Share and Communicate Ground Rules with Your Team
  4. Crafting an Environment that Fosters Adherence to Your Ground Rules
  5. Managing Ground Rule Violations

The first two parts of our agenda are covered in large part (but not entirely) in this short video:

What are Ground Rules

Ground rules set out a code of conduct for a team. They explain the behaviors that everyone needs to follow. In this way, they determine what is acceptable or not, within your team.

With a good set of ground rules, everyone knows what you and their colleagues expect of them. This not only creates a basis for consistent performance. It also establishes a baseline for fair treatment of your team members.

Gound rules are one (very important) part of your wider project culture. Take a look at our article, Project Culture: What it is and How to Craft it.

Relationship of Ground Rules to Your Team Charter

In a Project Management environment, the team’s ground rules are likely to be a part of a wider Team Charter. This would include things like:

  • Shared values
  • Expectations for how we communicate
  • Processes (like decision-making and conflict resolution)
  • Tools we use
  • Authority
  • Working hours – especially when team members are spread over multiple time zones

Relationship of Ground Rules to Team Norms

Team behavior norms are the unwritten rules that team members follow. They are generally-accepted patterns of behavior. Establishing your team behavior norms is an important step in moving your team to high-performance mode.

They often take the form of unstated, implicit rules. So, breaking them incurs displeasure or even social sanction.

Ground rules create a formal articulation of the norms you want to encourage.

Here is a video on our sister channel, Management courses, about Establishing Team Behavior Norms.

Developing team norms is a natural part of the group development lifecycle. For me, Bruce Tuckman explains it best. Here are links to our article and video on the Tuckman Model of Group Development.

Relationship of Ground Rules to Your Code of Ethics

Most professional bodies have some form of code of ethics or formal code of conduct. For example, here are links to the:

It makes good sense to me, for your team’s ground rules to draw on these kinds of documents. In particular, if one of these organizations – or their qualifications – is endorsed or required by your organization, start with that one.

You may also like our feature article, Ethics: What’s the Code of Conduct for Project Managers?

Relationship of Ground Rules to Diversity and Inclusion 

In many modern organizations, the requirement for inclusion of all members of the workforce is embedded in policy and organizational values. This is as it should be. But, if you don’t have such a foundation, I would recommend strongly that you consider incorporating this into any team ground rules.

We have three resources that will help you:

  1. How to Support Diversity and Inclusion in Your Team | Video
  2. And, for a deeper dive: Building Inclusive Teams: A Conversation with Anita Phagura of Fierce Project Management
  3. And, Anita’s guest article: The Only Woman in the Room: Fierce Skills for Women in Project Management

Relationship of Ground Rules to the Vision and Mission for your Team

It’s an obvious question to ask: how are ground rules related to the mission and vision for your team and your wider project? Clearly, they must align. The simplest way to think about this is:

  • Mission and Vision set out the big picture for what your team will do
  • Ground rules set out the big picture for how your team will do things (And your Team Charter fleshes out the details)

How to Define Your Team Ground Rules

Ideally, your team should create its own set of ground rules, rather than the Project Manager imposing them. But, of course, some contexts will demand certain ground rules apply.

Examples of these are where you are working in domains of high security or where there are safety-critical activities. But even here, you’ll usually find that, once team members understand the priorities, they will set appropriate ground rules for themselves.

Teams will always be more likely to accept and abide by ground rules they’ve set themselves. A good set of ground rules will establish clear expectations and reduce uncertainty and ambiguity.

However, where is a team is familiar with one another – or where they all come from the same prevailing organizational culture – it is quite possible you will not need to set ground rules at all. They will be implicit in the existing norms of behavior – how people already expect to work together.

When to set Team Ground Rules

The time to determine your team’s ground rules is as early as possible. As soon as your team feels familiar enough with one another to start a difficult conversation. We have some great resources to help you with the stage of creating a new Project Team.

A Process to Define Team Ground Rules

Here’s a basic process I would use to set Project Team Ground Rules:

  1. Decide what is non-negotiable 
    I am likely to include things like ethical standards, respect, honesty, and integrity. In doing so, I recommend you consider:
    • Your organization
    • Your client
    • Yourself, as project manager
  2. Facilitate a team conversation about ground rules. 
    Explain what they are, why they are important, and how you plan to develop them.
  3. Ask your team to think about past work and project environments. 
    What were the characteristics of good and bad environment?
  4. Based on these conversations, ask the team to suggest candidates for ground rules they want.
  5. Add your own, if they aren’t there.
  6. Now ask the team to remove duplicates, arrange them in order, and tidy up the wording.
  7. Once everyone agrees, post these ground rules where everyone can see them
  8. Revisit them in project team meetings – and review them if necessary.

What to Include in Your Team Ground Rules

It’s up to you (well, better, your team) to decide what to include. But, your ground rules are likely to cover things like:

  • Time-keeping
  • Inclusion, tolerance, respect
  • Responsibility and accountability – individual and shared
  • Fairness
  • Contribution and being heard
  • Social aspects of the team
  • Confidentiality

How to Share and Communicate Ground Rules with Your Team

If you have fully involved your team in creating their Ground Rules, you don’t really need to ‘communicate’ them. Rather, you need to make them available. I recommend a blend of some (or even all) of these:

  • Produce a small printed card (or booklet, if you’ve gone large!)
  • Posters
  • Article in your shared online team space
  • File in the team’s shared data folder
  • Team-building tattoo session (a joke – DON’T)

If You Created the Ground Rules

However, if you have created your Ground Rules alone, or with a small group, these are not enough. Dumping a set of rules on people rarely goes down well. And it often causes a strong backlash.
So, in this case, you’ll need to get the team together and speak with them. You’ll need to brief them on your Ground Rules. And the sequence of topics I would recommend is:

  1. Why you have decided to create the Ground Rules. Why your team needs them. And, critically, what benefit they will get from having and adhering to them.
  2. What team rules are and what your team rules are. Take your team through the document and explain where necessary.
  3. How you plan to maintain and enforce them. And any process for review and updating them.
  4. What if someone breaks the rules. How will you respond and what will be the implications?
  5. Call for questions and answer them clearly and honestly. Keep asking for more questions until there are no more. Then invite people to come and see you privately, if they wish.

After this, you can publish the ground rules, as I described above.

Crafting an Environment that Fosters Adherence to Your Ground Rules

I know this is going to sound a little repetitive, but…

I recommend (strongly) that you start by involving your teams in setting their own ground rules. This way, they are likely to both respect them and help enforce them, by exerting peer pressure on one another.

Follow Your own Rules

The other thing that is evident is the importance of living the ground rules yourself. You absolutely must set an excellent example. Conspicuously abide by every last detail of the ground rules. One tiny infraction on your part will massively undermine both your:

  1. Ground Rules
  2. Moral Authority

People tend to follow their leader. They are more likely to do as you do, that as you say. And, of course, they will respect you only to the extent that what you say and what you do align.

Pick up on Breaches

Don’t turn a blind eye to someone breaking the rules. That will lead from small to larger breaches, as people learn that you seem not to care. And, where is the boundary between small breaches and large? The nature of ground rules should obviate the need for value judgments between minor and serious.

However, none of this means you need to (nor should you) come down hard on every minor breach…

Managing Ground Rule Violations

It’s your responsibility as Project Manager (and team leader) to enforce the ground rules and deal with violations. But, the team will often do this for you. If they don’t – act quickly, but in a measured way. At the extreme, you may need to discipline a team member – or remove them from the team.

But, to my earlier point, your default response to minor breaches should be a quiet word. I would hope that this will almost always be enough to reset behaviors. And, by starting small, you have a proper escalation route.

Of course, things can get bad. The result will be some form of conflict, between either:

  • Two or more of your team members, or
  • You and one or more of your team members

We have a number of resources to help you with conflict management:

And, for a thorough grounding, we have our training program: Dealing with Conflict in Projects – A Practical Introduction to Conflict Management for Project Managers.

Dealing with Conflict in Projects

Conflict is an inevitable part of project life. And it’s not always bad.​

But, often, it is.
It can be stressful, harm productivity, spoil working relationships, and lead to damaging behaviors.

And fixing it is down to you…

So, this course will equip you to:

  • Be able to prevent conflict
  • Reduce and reverse its escalation
  • Handle full blown conflict
  • and… recover from the effects of a conflict-induced relationship breakdown

Use Code: OPMC-READER at checkout to get 30% off.

What is Your Experience of Team Ground Rules

Please do share your thoughts about ground rules in the comments below. I look forward to responding to any contributions.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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