Wise Owl Tip: Are You Sure You Know How To Make Agreements?

Agreements are tricky. In fact, most agreements are disguised as roles, responsibilities, expectations, goals and/or projects. It’s no wonder that we have such difficulty making and honoring agreements: we aren’t looking at them as agreements. For many years now, I have found that every time I am coaching someone or a group of people through a communication breakdown—or helping them understand why a goal, project or expectation wasn’t met—I always find myself coming back to the thought, “What were the agreements that everyone had?” There’s always an aha moment when the person ultimately in charge realizes clear agreements were not made and that is the source of the breakdown.

During my 21 years of building both large and small teams in high tech, I have seen that the number one factor that causes team breakdown is unclear agreements. Ninety percent of the team breakdowns I have witnessed in my own organizations and in tech employment coaching services have been due to a lack of clear agreements. Let’s stop these team breakdowns so we can enjoy life more. Join me in taking a few minutes to think about the agreements you have and how you make them.


What is a clear agreement?

A clear agreement is measurable and leaves no room for different interpretations of the agreement. It’s the details behind the details that get overlooked. Below are two examples of both clear and unclear agreements:

Example 1:

A.  We will decrease our vulnerability risk exposure to 1%.

B.  We will decrease our vulnerability risk exposure in our controlled IT environment down to 1%.

Example 2:

A. We will increase sales by 25% in 2015.

B. We will increase new customer revenue sales by 25% in 2015.

If we read only the A examples, they look like measurable, clear agreements—but are they? Anyone in cybersecurity or sales would look at these examples and say, “No, they are not clear.” There is clearly too much room for interpretation in option A vs. option B, but would you know option A wasn’t clear if you didn’t have option B there? Would you have accepted option A as an agreement you would make? Unfortunately, my experience says, “Yes, you would”—and you’re not alone. Not much training is provided to ensure that we are skilled in agreement making, so don’t feel bad.

Take Example 1: the difference in detail between option A and option B is so significant that one’s security practice could be severely impacted, and yet, it would be easy for someone to say, “Well, of course I meant I wanted vulnerabilities decreased in a fully controlled environment.” And then finger pointing begins. Sound familiar?

There is a lot of room for finger pointing and blame in unclear agreements, and yet we all make unclear agreements every day. We aren’t making unclear agreements intentionally in most situations. We see numbers and we think they’re measurable, so they must be clear—but are they?

Together as conscious professionals we can stop this communication breakdown madness and really think about the agreements we are making and why we are making them. By understanding exactly what the measurable agreement is down to a fine detail we can honor more agreements and have less team breakdowns.

Do the people you have agreements with understand the agreements the same way you do? How do you know? Do you have these agreements written down and signed by both parties? No? Then you don’t have agreements. Sad to say, but you don’t have an agreement unless it’s acknowledged through a signature or an email acknowledgment.

You might be thinking to yourself, “…But my boss doesn’t know how to make agreements.”  I know; it’s awful that many managers aren’t trained in agreement making. Yet you have to deal with it—and you can. You must “manage up,” as we say. You must be the one to initiate making the agreements clear and measurable and get your manager to sign off on them. You can do it. And if the people you work with don’t want to work with written, clear agreements then you can always go work somewhere else. You are a highly desired professional.

You may also be thinking, “But what if we can’t agree on an agreement that is measurable?” Then you can sign an agreement that says you can’t agree on a measurable agreement. Put in writing what you can agree on and not that you can’t agree on a specific measurement of this agreement. Agreements are meant to keep truth and transparency at the forefront of our relationships. They can’t be ignored or mismanaged. Don’t give up. Whatever the placeholder agreement is while you figure out what a measurable agreement is for you, is your agreement for the time being. However, do not let this intermediary agreement be a placeholder for too long; it won’t end well. You are the only one who can ensure you get a measurable agreement.

Once we have clear and measurable agreements written down we can act accordingly and eliminate confusion about our daily tasks. We won’t get blamed for things we didn’t do and we won’t be victims—so together let’s all make a conscious effort to make agreements clear, measurable and in writing; I bet that the teams we operate within will appreciate it!

I hope this Wise Owl Tip helps us all live powerfully within the pursuit of happiness at work

Deidre, Wise Owl and CyberSN CEO