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It has become fashionable to begin open discussion sessions and training seminars by going over a list of agreements with those present. The idea here is to elicit agreement from the audience for certain ground rules of discussion. Things like; “Be constructive,” “Be present,” or “Listen for understanding,” are commonly entered to a list of agreements. Each of these rules are supposed to encourage good speaking and listening behavior, and to help people get a sense for what is expected of them in the meeting to follow. The point of calling these principles ‘agreements,’ and for beginning to meeting by discussing them is, of course, to get some buy-in for the rules of engagement from those present in the session.

As these principles are almost always worded in nice positive terms, I imagine they also serve as a kind of comfort; a way of encouraging people to participate in what follows by encouraging them to act in good faith and to believe that others present will do the same.

It all sounds quite wonderful.

Frankly, these things always make me want to vomit.

Why?

First, this is fake buy-in culture at its worst. Like focus groups, an agreement list is often a means of disguising an executive decision as a group agreement. In this case the executive is often a facilitator, but the principle is the same; the group present is being asked to place its stamp of approval on a decision that has already been made. When a facilitator in a large meeting hauls out a list of ‘agreements,’ and invites people to say whether or not they support each individual agreement, they do so in a context ripe with group-think dynamics. Someone might get by with objecting to one or another item on a list of agreements, but they are just as likely to brand themselves the resident trouble-maker, and this is going to happen at the start of the whole meeting. Not to mention, everyone wants to get on with things. Voice enough objections and it’s likely to become a problem. Under such circumstances, there is a strong expectation the agreements brought into a meeting by facilitator are going to be, well, …agreed to. Hence, the notion that these are terms agreed to by a group is often a thinly-disguised pretense for a set of rules fostered by the facilitator.

There may be room negotiation, but some of the participants have a lot more room to maneuver than others.

What does the facilitator get out of this?

They get the ability to say that all those present agreed to the terms in the list, but that assumes the agreements were ever really open to negotiation in the first place, which often as not just isn’t true. Serious input is particularly unlikely in unfamiliar settings and with unfamiliar people, and it is even less likely in the workplace wherein people may have been directed to participate in meetings, often with their bosses present. Either way, the prospect of saying ‘no’ to a given agreement is loaded with unnecessary stress, and most importantly, that stress is unconnected to any standing interest. Somebody who is prepared to voice an opinion about an actual policy will think twice before picking a fight about an issue that will be over at the end of a meeting. So, the tendency is to pass on the invitation to weigh in on the agreements and see how things go.

Yes, people can say no to an agreement, and no, they cannot do so without at least some concerns about how their disagreement will affect their role in the meeting or even in the workplace at large.

A facilitator need not come with prepared agreements to get what she wants out of a group. She can disguise her agreements fairly easily. In true focus group fashion, a good facilitator just asks people what they think the agreements should be. She doesn’t need to show them a list of agreements or even tell them what she thinks should be on it. She can just ask them what they think. She will almost certainly get a number of suggestions about being respectful and constructive, etc. If others present in the meeting are familiar with these lists, they may even chime in with a few more of the current standards. Ask a couple leading questions, and someone in the group may just supply any missing items a facilitator really wants. If all else fails, a facilitator won’t be blamed for suggesting one or two herself, especially not if she waits till the end. It will look like she put others views before her own. They won’t realize that this item or two completes a list that the facilitator was ticking off from the very beginning. Do this right, and folks may actually think the resulting list of agreements are actually the result of a group process,

…well, except for that one item.

…and that other one too!

The positive nature of the principle can also be quite deceptive. I once attended a meeting in which people were told to take off their hats. Sitting there with my literal hat in my literal hand, I wondered what this meant. We were told that it meant people should forget their role in the work organization; that they should speak freely and without fear of consequences. I remember thinking that if this were true, none of us would have been there.

…most anyway.

And yes, I am quite serious about that. This particular meeting was scheduled an a terribly inappropriate time and many of us were stressing over the work we were not getting done while in this meeting, work that needed doing immediately.

More to the point, this was an incredibly naive thing to say, recklessly so, given that the point was made by an outside consultant who would soon return home while the rest of us went back to worth with each other, and with our bosses

…remembering who said what about whatever.

The potential for serious negative consequences was very real in this instance, and it was completely irresponsible for this facilitator to suggest otherwise. It’s one thing to encourage good behavior, and it is quite another to provide false assurance that such behavior can be expected of others.

In the end, the problem with agreements is all to simple; they represent a kind of two-faced use of authority. On the one hand, a speaker is using agreements to lock down the rules of engagement for a discussion. On the other hand, they are trying to distribute authority for those rules among all those present. It’s one of the many ways in which people uncomfortable with their own authority try to hide it from themselves and others, even as they use that very authority to control others. Some are more heavy-handed than others, and not every agenda is anything to be afraid of, but there is little positive to be gained from disguising an actual agenda or the authority used to advance it.

Frankly, I would rather a facilitator just told us what they expect from a group rather than pretend we are all making the discussion together. The rest of us can like it or we can lump it, but I figure a facilitator ought to do us the courtesy of acknowledging their own authority while exercising that very authority themselves.