What We Mean By "Agreement"

The purpose of having an agreement is to create violations.


The purpose of having an agreement is not to prevent violations but to create them.

There's a counterintuitive notion if ever there was one. 

Most simply, without an agreement, it is impossible to have a violation. You may find yourself upset or angry with me over something I have done, but if we never took the time to devise an agreement, then it's impossible for you to tell me about the line I crossed in a way that has meaning for me.

On the other hand, if I know what we've agreed, I know what I can and can't do, and hopefully most of the time I'm on the right side of the line. If I shift my perspective accept the opening proposition here, I find I have a very different approach to my interaction with you when I do step over the line.

Keeping agreements is about integrity. Synonyms for integrity include rectitude, probity, virtue, and honesty. 

Integrity can be found at the personal and at the organizational levels. In my experience, organizational integrity is a much trickier characteristic to nurture and sustain. This is in part because of the challenges inherent in crafting group level agreements. 

Organizations are very good at writing policies and establishing rules, but these policies and rules are not very good at fostering collective integrity. That's because they are generally intended to address the extremes of behavior: the egregious violations that require disciplinary action. 

Integrity, rather, is something that is part of an organization's day to day existence and operations. Or not. It is not very effectively imposed from the outside. It grows from within. In groups, culture is a far better incubator, and regulator, of organizational integrity. 

I have been working for years with a national non-profit that is a paragon of this kind of integrity. Even though they have been on an astronomical growth curve lately, they continue to be very rigorous and intentional about guarding their culture, protecting it as one of their most valuable assets. 

A fundamental part of the culture there is a commitment to open communication. Lots of organizations say they have this value, and I have never seen one that lives up to it the way this one does. What makes the commitment so unique in this case is the way the entire organization reaches explicit collective agreements, acknowledges that violations of these agreements are only a matter of time, and then engages over the violation to either reconfirm or adjust the original agreement. 

These organizational agreements are living, breathing elements of the group's life together. When they become stagnant, they lose their meaning and impact.