Team Building 101: What is a team charter and why is it important?

Teams, whether they are well-established work teams or temporary project teams, function best when all members have clarity around their purpose and their procedures. As simple as this sounds, we are continually surprised how few teams spend any time at all on this important aspect of their work together.

A ‘Team Charter’ will help a team get off to a good start by describing briefly and clearly the team’s purpose, what outcomes they expect to achieve, leadership expectations, decision methods to be used, roles and responsibilities of the members and expected behaviours. If you spend a few hours removing ambiguity at the beginning of the team’s work (while heads are cool and objective), you can often avoid time-consuming and painful conflicts that become magnified by heated emotional states.

Often, the Charter will include a set of expected behaviours or ‘ground rules’ for participation called ‘Group Norms’. For a well-established group that is clear on its purpose and responsibilities, sometimes it is enough to just clarify the expected Norms. They, more than anything else, describe the culture the team would like to create. They keep the team members’ interactions positive and productive.

Here are a few tips for establishing a Team Charter and/or set of Group Norms:
1. Get the right people involved at the right time. If you have a small team of, say, 10 people, you might include everyone. If you have a large group or department that is being formed, it will be difficult to get everyone involved at all times. Get up to five or so key people with the knowledge, authority and broad perspectives of the organization to set the main framework around the purpose and expectations of the team. Then report the ‘givens’ to the larger group.
2. Involve everyone in establishing the Group Norms, and strive for consensus. Encourage questions and discussions that clarify meanings of simple concepts such as effective communications, respect, trust, etc. Don’t assume people know how to behave productively in a team setting. Our experience tells us this is not the case.
3. Consider bringing in a professional facilitator. Or, consider integrating this work with a focused team development session that will bring the concept of high performance teamwork to life.
4. Schedule time to revisit your Charter and your Norms. As the group progresses, some expectations may change, decision methods may require a different approach and behavioural guidelines may need to be revised or reinforced.
5. Enforce your Norms. Ideally, all team members will feel responsible for calling out transgressions. However, the leader must take on this role if no one else does.

Creating a Team Charter or set of Group Norms is a simple yet essential step for a team. It will clarify expectations, promote trust and position you for successful interactions.

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