Make A “Social Contract” With Your Team

I have told you how to define goals, rules and boundaries for the people in your organization, and hopefully your team is on a great and inspiring mission.

But what do your team members get in return?

Why should people subscribe to your vision? What’s in it for them? Only a salary?

Israel Gat described how he used the idea of a social contract to define the obligations that the manager feels he has towards his employees:

Team, my overarching organizational objective is to preserve our team and its institutional knowledge for our corporation and its customers for years to come. We will achieve this goal by enhancing our software engineering prowess to the level that the resultant benefits will outweigh the repercussions of the current financial crisis. […] Whether you will or will not be with the company in the future, I acknowledge your need to develop professionally as Agile practitioners and commit to invest in your education/training.

In this social contract Israel Gat described not only (part of) a mission, but also what he acknowledged to be his own responsibilities toward the team members. In this case it was investing in education to address their need to further develop themselves professionally.

Social contract theory is a philosophical concept describing how groups of people maintain social order by giving up some of their freedoms to an authority. It is an agreement by the governed on a set of rules by which they should be governed, and it usually applies to societies and their governments. But the idea translates quite well to organizations, even though the “governed” do not have the right to elect their “governors.” What is similar is that the contract lists the obligations of the authorities toward the people, and that everyone is automatically assumed to agree on the contract, or else they are free to leave. (Which, I am sad to add, can be a bit troublesome in the case of some countries.)

A social contract should address the basic necessities of people. In a society, they are not only things like food, shelter, and safety, but also freedom of speech, basic education, equality, and (if you’re fortunate enough to be born in a modern country) healthcare. In an organizational context we’re talking about similar things, like the freedom to voice your opinion, professional development, non-discrimination, and a little help when you’re not feeling well.

This brings us back to a topic I have frequently touched upon before, which is that management is all about people, and that it needs to acknowledge their basic intrinsic desires. A social contract is a simple but effective way of making this explicit for all involved.

(image by madmolecule)

This article will be part of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. You can follow its progress here.

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