Empowerment and the Honor Code

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We’ve all seen it before. Hurt feelings, belligerent behavior, blatant political posturing and ugly, non-productive meetings. Once the hammer comes down from the leader, people withdraw and hold back for fear of consequences. Poorly managed meetings can be expensive, counter-productive and divisive. Indeed, important brain storming sessions can become more about storming than brain.

Hierarchies exist in the workplace and life in general, and to get the most from human talent and experience team members must be “set free” to fully express their ideas without the threat of repercussions.  Indeed the political aspects need to be neutralized through consensus and buy-in . This is accomplished by facilitating a Code of Honor. (The term “honor” implies deep seated values).

Most companies define and support “core values,” but a Code of Honor is more a methodology and context for establishing ground rules for participants. Some companies establish a general daily code while others also promote the development of a code on a project by project basis.

The main difference from a general code of core values and a team project code is that the development of a team code is part of the team building process. For example, a project may require participants from different departments or skill sets. Moreover, the team leader may not have adequate knowledge of the team members and how they will work together. Some participants may be self-confident and aggressive while others may be more introverted and less participatory. The idea of the code is to create a level playing field for all participants through a process of collaboration facilitated by the team leader.

The development of a team code of honor does several important things. Through effective facilitation, developing a collaborative code forces the team to break the ice and interact. The team leader can get an idea of the temperament and nature of the members. By facilitating open collaboration, the team defines what they feel they need to freely participate without fear and help to identify potential conflicts that need to be resolved before they become conflicts.

Once the group produces a consensus of the ground rules of behavior, a contract is drawn up and signed by all participants. In most cases, the accountability for not observing the code of honor contract is expulsion from the group project. However, if aspects of the contract are found to be ineffective, the contract can be changed through collaboration.

Code of Honor construction scenario

Typically, the team leader will open the first meeting with a definition of the mission and its goals and objectives. A group Q &A takes place to clearly address any concerns regarding the nature of the project. The facilitator must make sure all members are participating and aware of what part they are to play in the project.

Now that the project has been defined, it’s time to define the code of honor. The facilitator must provoke concerns such as:

  • Mission first, followed by the company interests and personal agenda last
  • Assuming responsibility for actions and words
  • Being on time for all meetings
  • Standing behind promises and timeline milestones
  • Openly asking for help when there are problems
  • Respect all team members and politely listen to others without interrupting
  • Making no personal attacks or hurtful remarks
  • Volunteering any and all ideas and experiences that may help the project.
  • Ability to call out any code infractions.

The above elements are just some of the typical code elements but each group should develop their own code that best reflects the nature of the mission. The code should unshackle team members with a clear definition of behavioral ground rules and written buy in.

Much of management best practices are just common sense but it is rather alarming that there is more talk than action. There is a definite reluctance to be “overly inclusive” but this is usually more a reaction to insecurity in the ability of management to properly develop and manage a cost-effective process for more inclusion. Today, with increased globalization, disruption and rapid technical advances, companies that fail to see the value of employee empowerment are making a mistake.


Additional Reading

TOP FACILITATOR TIPS: Developing the Team Honor Code

3 Tactics Revealed To Crack the CODE of High-Performing Teams (June)


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