Strong teamwork starts with guiding principles

Organizations value teamwork as a primary vehicle to advance mission and productivity.

Leaders are charged with the responsibility of creating effective teams, yet rarely are they given the resources to develop the necessary skills for effective teamwork.

There is an assumption in many organizations that if you bring people together and identify them as a team, they will automatically know how to maximize their strengths to achieve organizational goals. While we appreciate that team members are selected for their technical expertise, they are not necessarily equipped to engage in productive relationships that will result in successful completion of business initiatives.

Teams, unlike work groups, engage in individual and mutual accountability; they frequently come together for discussion, decision making, problem solving, planning. Members focus on team/organizational goals and produce collective work product. Individual roles and responsibilities focus on the work of the team; and the concern is with outcomes individually and collectively. There is shared purpose. Goals and the approach to work are shaped by the team leader with all team members.

Effective teams

Effective teamwork is rooted in trusting relationships. Patrick Lencioni, author of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” identifies five characteristics of a high-performing team to include, trust; ability to engage in healthy conflict; commitment and buy-in around decisions; accountability to one another; and attention to results.

In our experience, projects rarely fail because team members don’t have the skill and ability to achieve identified goals. Projects fail when relationships begin to erode. Projects fail when team members don’t feel safe with one another. Projects fail when there is no room for differences.

Because teamwork is rooted in relationship, leaders must attend to the dynamics that occur among team members. Like any relationships, there will be challenges. Relationships require vigilance and the ability to periodically take ‘time out” to reset.

Leaders have the opportunity to demonstrate vulnerability by admitting mistakes; asking for help and expecting the same in team members. Offering appreciation for the contribution of each team member and encouraging members to do the same supports a high performing team.

Recently, one of our consultants facilitated a team retreat. There was quite a bit of dissention as team members gathered. A few members of the team had “dropped the ball” by not communicating a significant issue impacting the entire team. The conversation began with anger and frustration and levels of blaming one another. However, with skilled facilitation, team members began to acknowledge their contribution, and apologized for their missteps. They were able to reset. It was a critical turning point in their relationships with one another.

Developing guiding principles

One of the strategies that we encourage as an effective tool is “guiding principles.” As we work with teams, we often facilitate the conversations that result in the development of agreed upon behaviors that support productive relationships. Team members and leaders consistently report that creating these agreements significantly impacts the way they interact with one another.

Guiding principles are statements of behavior that members of a team agree to honor in their relationships with one another. They are meant to be clear, behaviorally focused and relevant to the dynamics within the team. It is important, for example, to define words like respect, communication, etc. Questions to ask include: “What would respect look like in this team.”

We recommend limiting guiding principles to five or six. If there are too many guiding principles, it becomes easy not to honor any!

Examples of guiding principles

  • I will assume good intentions, believing that each person is trying to act in the best interest of our team and the organization.
  • Once a decision has been made, I will honor the decision and publicly support it.
  • I will communicate directly and candidly with my colleagues, even when I know they may disagree with me.
  • If I have a difference with someone on our team, I will address it with him/her directly. I will not engage in conversations with others about it.


Once guiding principles are established, it is important that they are reviewed on a regular basis with an opportunity to assess individually and collectively how the principles are being lived out. We recommend that members of a team periodically do a self evaluation and a team evaluation on a scale of 1-5. Sharing the results over time creates a roadmap for improvement opportunities. It also provides an opportunity to modify or add to the agreements.

The effectiveness of guiding principles will be maximized when all members of a team contribute to the development. There are times when leaders are tempted to impose “Guiding Principles” into the organization. When there has been no input from employees that strategy typically falls flat. Without ownership, we are not likely to commit.

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”

— Babe Ruth

What are the agreements that you have with your team members that support the best in your relationships? Is there an opportunity to create guiding principles that will deepen effective teamwork?

Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants, LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in Emotional Intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential. For additional information, visit

No posts to display