Clear Agreements Enable Aligned Action

Last month, a 13-year-old Massachusetts boy got the best Christmas present ever from his parents: an iPhone.

His joy was short-lived when he discovered that his Mom, Janell Hofmann, had outlined an 18-point contract for him to sign to use the phone.

The story went viral; many news organizations featured the story. Teens railed at the rules and parents admired the Mom for expressing her love AND her expectations so clearly.

I’m not sure if the story generated enthusiasm for setting others up for success with clear agreements in the workplace. Janell’s approach modeled the best practices of creating boundaries while validating the person – an unusual yet powerful combination.

Rules AND Relationships

In parenting and in leading team members, rules are important. Rules set boundaries for what is right, for desired outcomes. Too often, though, rules (to-do’s and NOT-to-do’s) are the only content. Great bosses (and great parents like Janell) create a foundation of care and consideration for the person first. The rules are then described in the context of that relationship. This approach validates the person then describes the desired behavior.

Let’s examine a few of the elements of Janell’s contract for her son.

“You are a good & responsible person; you deserve this gift. I love you madly.” These statements create the context for the entire contract. They validate the son’s good spirit and heart. Mom says, “I love you” boldly. Demonstrated care and consideration creates mutual trust and respect, in families and in workplaces.

“Answer the phone. Say hello; use your manners.” Janell outlines simple expectations about her son using good manners with his phone. With this standard set, she can praise aligned behavior and re-direct mis-aligned behavior, without malice.

“Turn the phone over to one of your parents at 7:30pm each school night, 9pm on weekends. It will remain off until 7:30am the next morning.” This statement outlines parameters. These timeframes may evolve as her son follows the curfews – or if he doesn’t follow the curfews.

“If the iPhone breaks, you’ll pay for it’s replacement.” This statement creates clear accountability for the care of the device – and there are consequences if the device isn’t cared for properly.

“Do not use this device to lie, fool, or deceive another human being.” This bold statement creates a standard of treatment of others; this is a core value of Janell’s and she’s transmitting it clearly to her son.

“You are not a rude person; do not let this device change that.” Rude cell phone behavior is more common than nice cell phone behavior. Janell sets up yet another family value – being nice – and asks that her son not allow others’ rude behavior to change his kind behavior.

“Keep your eyes up. See the world happening around you. Wonder without googling.” Technology is everywhere in our 3D world. Mom guides son to set technology aside with this statement. She’s making a plea for being fully present in life – we all could learn from this lesson.

“You will mess up. I will take away your phone. We will talk about it. We will start over. I’m on your team; we’re in this together.” Janell refers to the inevitable – breaking of the contract – while establishing that she and son are “in this together.” Son messing up is a natural occurrence – he won’t get thrown out of the family, but he will have to face the consequences of losing use of his phone for awhile.

“I hope you agree to these terms. Most of the lessons here do not just apply to the iPhone, but to life.” Mom points out the obvious: her job is to raise her son to be an effective, contributing member to family and society.

How clear are agreements in your work environment?

Join in the conversation about this post/podcast in the comments section below. To what extent do rules & relationships co-exist in your workplace? What are your experiences and opinions about clear agreements?

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  • Chris, thanks for putting this story into such a valuable business context. We are currently embracing the idea of “social contracts”, which create a higher-level dynamic based on moral responsibility and shared values. The “social contracts” are between individuals and each other, or individuals and the broader organization.

    Thanks as always for helping us all start our week with such clear and wise guidance.

    • Thanks so much for your comments, David. I love the idea of “social contracts,” leveraging moral responsibility, shared values, and, ultimately, mutual accountability for those values!
      The “peer to peer” responsibility is simply awesome. That’s the best outcome an organization can enjoy regarding values alignment.
      Have a great week!



  • DS

    There is a significant challenge to constantly keep in front of us the commitments we have made. Things that we have verbally, or in writing, committed to do some times gets lost in the hustle of every day life. If we’re not clear on those expectations, or on when those things are due – we’ll lose trust in one another and waste time. We face a challenge in our organization to keep action items in front of us. Clearly defined expectations are tremendously helpful. Thanks for the reminder and the illustration.

    • Thanks for your insights. If we are present and engaged in managing our commitments, trust & respect will grow. If not, it erodes.


      S. Chris Edmonds, MHROD  MacBook Air & iMac

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