Guidelines on the Effective Use of The Workplace Covenant

‘Lessons Learned’ For Managers:

You are a manager (or team leader, supervisor, director or executive), and you now have a “Workplace Covenant” with your staff. Presumably, this is a list of behavioral and attitude related promises and commitments that you have made relative to your role and relationship with them. You have signed it; and hopefully you will now keep it somewhere visible so that you can refer to it on a regular basis.

So now what? How do you get the most from this ‘tool’; the most ‘ROI’ from the investment of time and resources spent to develop it; and the most likelihood of experiencing improved “ERTAP”, i.e. Empathy, Respect, Trust, Alignment and Partnership, between you and your staff?

As you may have gathered, you are not the first manager and team to go through this process. Based on literally hundreds of other groups, there are some useful ‘lessons learned’ that may be helpful to you. Below are a number of practical suggestions, listed in no particular order, which if taken seriously and followed, will help you to get the most value from the Covenants. Indeed, these practices will transform the quality of the working relationship between you and your staff.

1. Formally Review the Covenants Quarterly with Your Staff. At least quarterly, you should schedule 30-40 minutes for a ‘Workplace Covenant Review’. In effect, this will be ‘code’ for ‘let’s take a time out to see how our relationship is going, and how we can support each other even better’. These latter words, spoken as such to your team, might not be well received in many organizations (too ‘touchy-feely’). However, when the words ‘let’s take some time to review our Covenants’ are used, it is more acceptable and there is an implicit expectation of mutual feedback, and the context of an agreed upon goal of working together to strengthen the partnership between the staff and the manager.

The process for the Covenant Review is simple:

1. Each ‘party’ (i.e. you the manager, and the team as a unit together) first takes some time, typically about 10-15 minutes, in separate locations, to review both Covenants. As the manager, you will focus first on your own Covenant to the staff. In effect, you are asking yourself, ‘How have I done on my Covenant commitments over the past three months. Where have I been consistent and good? Where have I been inconsistent, and not so effective? And what advice do I offer myself to adhere to my Covenant commitments better over the next three months?’ Using a “check mark” (i.e. going well), or “up-arrow” (needs improvement), rate your commitments one by one. Similarly, you then assess your team’s Covenant commitments to you. How have they done? Where have they, most of them, most of the time, been consistent and effective? And where have they, most of them, most of the time, not been consistent or effective? Finally, what advice do you offer them so they can be better at adhering to their Covenant commitments over the next three months? Again, use the check-mark or up-arrow rating system to make this assessment. Keep in mind, a “mixed score”, or both check-mark AND up-arrow is also possible (i.e. going well in some ways, needs improvement in others), but should not be over-used.

2. Both parties next come together in the same room; share their respective ‘ratings’ and assessments; then share the reciprocal advice; and then as appropriate, dialogue about how to work better together as partners. Wherever there was an up-arrow, there should also be a related conversation about how to turn this rating into a check-mark for the future (much like a student asking a professor how he/she can turn the C grade on a paper into an A on the next paper).

If you commit to this quarterly team-and-manager formal review, the staff will know you are serious about this process. They will know you are willing ‘to take it’ as well as ‘give it out’. They will know that in terms of the working relationship, you are interested in hearing their views and feedback; and that you have the personal confidence, ‘guts’ and inner security to let the team be candid. They will know that you do not take their advice personally or as offence, but rather as professional constructive feedback intended to help you become better as a manager; and they will know that you are serious about ‘continuous improvement’ (i.e. “Kaizen”) for both yourself and them. In short, they will respect you more, and as a result, be more receptive to your advice and suggestions to them.

2. Refer to the Covenants in Manager-to-Team Member One-on-Ones. In effect, this is an informal review and, if comfortable, also an exchange of mutual feedback between you the manager and one staff member. These conversations can be done at any time, and do not have to wait for quarterly opportunities. What has worked very well for a number of managers is to ask these questions (or some variation with wording that is comfortable for you) toward the end of the one-on-one with a direct report:

– “Although my Covenant is intended for the whole team, what are your thoughts on one or two areas or items where you think I, as the manager, could be more consistent or effective for you and the team? In other words, where could I be better on my Covenant?”
– “Although the team Covenant represents the intended behaviors of the whole group, not just you, what are one or two areas or items where you think you personally could improve or be more consistent?”

You will find the feedback offered in response to the first question typically quite helpful to you in your effectiveness as a manager. And you will find the response to the second question a good opportunity to offer that staff member useful feedback and coaching, or recognition and praise, as appropriate. The point is, informal review and feedback exchange related to the Covenants can occur at any time, not just in formal reviews with the whole team.

3. Use Your Covenant as a Means to Support and Explain (and if necessary, defend) Your Actions. There will be times when you will need to take actions that a given individual, or the whole staff, may not be happy about, e.g. when you offer constructive feedback, hold the group accountable to a commitment, or say ‘no’ to a particular request. This can be an appropriate moment to state: “On my Covenant, item number ‘X’, it indicates that I will offer coaching and feedback to the team when appropriate. Well, here is an opportunity for me to offer some coaching and constructive feedback”. Alternatively, “On my Covenant I signed up to ensure accountability from the team. Well, here is an occasion where I need to make sure we fulfill our commitments ….”. In short, you can use your Covenant to the team to support, explain or even defend why you are doing what you are doing.

Conversely, there will be times when you take action that will be pleasing and appreciated by the team. This is also a good opportunity to link what you are doing to the Covenant so that they understand and are reminded that you are actually using the document as a guide in your efforts to support them. For example, if you have advocated on behalf of the team with ‘higher ups’, or secured needed resources for the team, you might state: “Hey gang, you recall that item number ‘X’ on my Covenant is to be an advocate for the group. Well I just had a meeting with senior management, and I described in detail the group’s recent accomplishments. They were delighted”. Or you might state: “Folks, you know how on my Covenant it indicates I should obtain needed resources for the team to do your job. Well, I got the ‘green light’ today and we now have approval to hire for the two open positions in our group”. Again, you are referring to your Covenant as a means of reminding the team that you are working on their behalf, and thereby acting as a servant-leader.

4. Use Their Covenant as a Means to Hold Them Accountable for Their Actions. There will be times when you will notice that individuals have ignored certain items on their Team Covenant, the consequence of which may be detrimental to the goals of the group, or working relationships within the group. For example, if you notice that one or more members has not been a good team-player, or has not delivered on stated commitments, as the manager you could state: “Hey guys, on your Covenant to me, items X and Y indicate you will work as a team, and keep your promises. Well, in the last week, I have noticed several times when this has not happened. Here is what I have observed …………………… What do you think?”. Reminding them of the items in
their Covenant, and the goals implicit in these items, invokes some useful ‘guilt’, and is an effective way of re-focusing the staff on what needs to happen going forward.

Again, the point here is to link demonstrated behavior from the team to their Covenant, and either note shortfalls, or conversely, commend and recognize where the Covenant items have been acted on well. Either way, this noticing and feedback on your part reinforces the message that adherence to the Covenant is the best way to ensure an effective and satisfying partnership.

5. Introduce Prospective or New Members to the Covenants. From time to time, your group may be interviewing and/or acquiring new members. To help these individuals understand your group ‘culture’, and the way people are expected to interact with one another, reviewing both your Covenant to the team, and the Team’s Covenant to you, may be quite helpful. Typically, a prospective/new member will appreciate seeing these Covenants and the documents will provide some good insight into how your group operates. If for some reason a candidate has ‘problems’ with the Covenant concept, or any of the items listed, this may give you a useful warning of future issues with that candidate.

6. Reflect on Your Covenant at Least Weekly. Although this is implied in the above suggestions, it is worth stating explicitly. As we know from the world of professional sports, coaches are judged – and either retained or released – by how well their team performs. In the long run, it is the same way for team leaders, supervisors, managers and executives in most organizations. If your team does well, you will be judged well. Hence, at the risk of stating the obvious, your primary goal is to ensure the success of your team, and your Covenant to them is the explicit ‘road-map’ of how you can do that. Fulfill your Covenant robustly, and assuming you have the right people on your team, you and they will be successful. Hence, it is worth the five minutes or so a week to hold off other distractions, and quietly reflect on the items in your Covenant. How are you doing on these items? What is meant by the more high level or vaguely worded items (e.g. “Be honest”, or “Communicate regularly”)? How can you add relevant detail and examples to your interpretation of, and acting upon, these items? Is there something you could do or say today that would demonstrate to the team, or an individual on the team, that you are mindful of the Covenant and actually using it as a reference or guide in your interactions? The items you find the hardest, what could you do to get better at them? Is there someone you know who is good at these items, or has a good reputation in these areas? What would they do; and/or could they help you to do better? By simply asking yourself these questions, and sincerely considering the options, you are leveraging the Covenants and improving your chances of being an effective leader for your team.

7. Remember “ERTAP”. Finally, to ensure you get a good ROI from The Workplace Covenant, recall that the intended outcomes of the Covenant process include “ERTAP”: Empathy, Respect, Trust, Alignment and Partnership. As you use your Covenants to strengthen the professional relationship between you and your team, be aware that it can be an effective tool to increase mutual Empathy. When you engage in open, authentic conversation about the items in the Covenants, the levels of empathy between you and your staff will increase. When you share your expectations, and your candid feedback on yourself and them, the team’s understanding and empathy for your point of view will increase. Similarly, as they share their expectations and candid feedback to themselves and you, hopefully your level of empathy for them will increase too.

As empathy increases, so will mutual Respect. The levels of mutual respect will increase as you and staff members engage in honest yet also professional (i.e. unemotional) and constructive conversation about the items in the Covenants and the related subjects of how you both can help one another to succeed. Indeed, as you listen to and take seriously their feedback to you, their level of respect for you will increase. In turn, as you listen to them share their self feedback, and respond well to your feedback to them, hopefully your level of respect for them will also increase.

As empathy and respect increase, and both parties keep their commitments over time, the levels of mutual Trustworthiness and Trust will also improve. Famous author Stephen Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, 1989) has suggested that the basis of trust is being trustworthy, which is a function of keeping one’s promises. Hence, as both you and the team make sincere efforts to keep your Covenants and the promises implied in them, the levels of trust between you and them will increase.

As empathy, respect, and trust increase, so will team Alignment. Alignment, that is, the coordination of effort and actions toward agreed upon goals, is a necessary (if insufficient) condition of organizational effectiveness, efficiency and success. Hence, if you and the staff are to achieve your respective goals and do so in a way that is satisfying to both you and the staff, alignment is required. All successful sports teams, orchestras, and volunteer committees know that the key to success is alignment of effort. If both parties do their reasonable best to live up to their Covenants, and review them from time to time to make needed corrections, alignment will happen.

Finally, the last outcome of The Workplace Covenant is Partnership. This is the ideal state where both the manager and all on staff feel ‘ownership’ for the work itself, the goals of the group, the relationships in the team, and the quality of experience that both the manager and staff have at work. It is a state where, rather than a parent-child relationship between the manager and the team, there is an adult-to-adult relationship, where both have a feeling of ‘in this boat together’, and shared mutual accountability for process and outcomes. In short, it is a state of high commitment, high performance, and almost always, high results.

Having a Workplace Covenant with your team is an opportunity and a ‘tool’ that not all managers get. Many managers lack the self-confidence, discipline or maturity to make this process work. Many teams are not ready for the responsibility, self-critique, and sometimes challenging conversations required by a Covenant. And many organizations are not open to the concept that managers should have real obligations to their staffs, treat them as customers, and receive periodic feedback from them. But if you are reading this document, your situation is different. As noted earlier, this process can transform your group, and the experience you and your team have at work. It can distinguish you positively from your peers and others who do not have this opportunity. But like any process or tool, it has to be used to be effective. The choice is yours. The ideas above will help you. But you have to make the time and commit to the notion of having real partnership with your team. Based on the experience of hundreds of other managers and their teams who have done this before you, the effort is worth it, and the results can be extraordinary.