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The Sneaky Power of Social Agreements at Work

Ever wondered why there is such an emphasis on identifying and communicating an organization’s core values? As in, do they really matter? In my experience, core values tend to look nice on the walls and on marketing materials, but often fail to drive behavior or guide decisions in day to day interactions and operations.

I’m sad to admit to this. I’ve been involved in numerous initiatives geared toward uncovering and weaving core values into the fiber of an organization. I know this work is important and meaningful, yet something is missing the mark. These values often become nothing more than talking points for senior leaders and occasionally a well-intentioned award.

There is another way to breathe life into values at work. It’s call a Social Agreement or Social Contract. Organizations that are experimenting with better ways of work (responsive, agile, self-management, teal, etc.) are beginning to implement social agreements as a way to ensure team members are living and interacting with each other on purpose, in alignment to the larger organization.

Social Agreements/Contracts

Think of a social contract as the expectations and commitments we make to and with one another about how we intend to work together.

This is NOT a code of conduct, a set of policies, an onboarding guide, or a duplication of an organization’s core values, but it likely has elements of all. A social agreement is a dynamic set of mutual expectations that is co-created, reviewed regularly, and revised often.

A team’s social agreement can be as simple as a list or as elaborate as a wiki, video or infographic. As Christine Riordan and Kevin O’Brian highlight in this HBR article, a social agreement should begin by asking:

  • What expectations do team members have of each other?
  • What is working well within the team?
  • What is not working well?
  • What should the team keep doing, start doing, and, as importantly, stop doing?

There are three additional key distinctions between a social agreement and core values that make them especially powerful.


First, a social agreement requires the team to determine upfront how to handle violations. If a team suggests “Be Present” as an element of their contract, what happens when a teammate violates that agreement by checking Facebook during their team meeting? Suitable consequences need to be established and agreed upon.

Team Buy-In

Second, a social agreement cannot be mandated. The beauty and essence of this process is in the co-creation of the agreement and outcomes. If members of the team do not believe in the concept or do not wish to participate, it simply won’t work. At the end of the day, each team member must sincerely care about the success of the team and each other for this process to make any difference.


Lastly, a social contract is not meant to be painted on the walls or printed in brochures like most corporate values. Even after a week’s time a new agreement will likely be ready for its first revision. Instead of creating rigidity around core values that are espoused to be stable and enduring, there is tremendous freedom in knowing a social agreement can and should change as the team comes to know what it did not know at the start. Being in continuous conversation about how we intend to be in relationship at work, openly and honestly is a beautiful thing!

Core values still have an important role in setting foundational principles and guidelines for what it means to be a part of an organization. However, a social agreement is where the magic happens, where people come together and collectively decide how to be in relationship together at work! This is the birthplace of trust, commitment, ownership, and innovation!

Want to create a better way of working? Give this a try with your team and experiment with the sneaky power of an authentic social agreement!