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Meeting Norms | Our Guide to Getting Started (Part 1)

Ashley Fontaine profile image

Ashley Fontaine

A group of people ina conference room. One of them is pointing at a whiteboard. The board has a lot of post its on it.

As the concept of equity becomes more mainstream in the nonprofit sector, it is vital to think tactically. What actions can we take within our organizations to meaningfully promote equity, rather than simply give it lip service? Enter meeting norms, sometimes referred to as "working agreements."

In the right hands, meeting norms can be an effective and powerful tool. In this piece we discuss why meeting norms are important, how to create them, and how to use them respectfully with your team.

What are meeting norms?

Meeting norms are the standards you set for working together positively and productively as a group. They should provide a guideline for behavior. Sometimes, these are behaviors that may be considered common sense without being expressly articulated. But we can save ourselves frustration and miscommunication if we practice being clear and direct.

Your meeting norms can (and should) address things like expectations, participation, decision making, communication, confidentiality, listening, time management, office culture, and handling disagreements. For example, a communication norm like “We will use the Round Robin method when seeking input during team meetings” can help ensure no individual’s ideas dominate, and encourage associate-level employees to contribute to the discussion.

Why meeting norms matter

Our ability to make positive social change hangs on our capacity to create and maintain connections. But it also requires attention to equity and inclusion. The process of establishing meeting norms can itself act as a mechanism to disrupt default cultural norms within your organization.

Norms done well can help to:

  • Develop a shared sense of responsibility and buy-in.
  • Address conflicts or interpersonal issues.
  • Ensure you’re not making assumptions based on your own set of intersecting identities and privileges.
  • Challenge the dominant culture norms in your nonprofit organization.
  • Leverage the unique skills and perspectives of each person on your team.
  • Create space for different learning and communication styles to actively participate.
  • Increase team members’ self-awareness and how their behavior impacts the work.
  • Shift culture in a positive way.

Norms in the real world

Time to get into the nitty-gritty. Norms must be translated into observable behaviors, not just catchy sound bites. Let’s talk about why, and go through some examples.

Here’s a common norm you’ve probably seen before: “We treat each other with respect.”

But what does that mean exactly? It’s important to translate a norm into an observable behavior. For example: “We show respect for other team members by being mindful of our airtime. If we have spoken a lot, or notice someone else has not yet had an opportunity to speak, we yield the floor.”

Can you see the difference? Yes, the first is short, sweet, and immediately memorize-able. But it gives no actionable information and relies on a subjective view of respectful behavior. The second is a behavioral guideline that gives actionable intel about how to show respect for others, based on consensus of what respect looks like in action.

Examples of "norms done right"

Here are a few sample meeting norms that I have found to be effective:

  • We will be engaged and present during our time together and limit our use of electronic devices to emergencies only. If there is a reason we need to be less present, we will communicate that to the group at the beginning of the meeting.
  • Problems or negative feedback are discussed directly and privately in a way that promotes discussion and with a focus on solutions.
  • We show respect for different working styles and personalities by sending meeting materials and questions two days in advance of meetings.
  • We come prepared for the materials and topics outlined on the agenda.
  • We share responsibility and rotate team members as agenda creator, note taker, and action-step summarizer.

It’s important to treat these like a living tool—don’t just create them and set them on the shelf to collect dust. Your list of agreed-upon norms should be visible in the space where you meet, and should be revisited at an interval that makes sense for your team.

For example, a board of directors may review and revise their norms when they bring on new members and at their yearly retreat, while a fundraising committee may review and revise theirs at the beginning of planning for their special event. Once established, norms should play an active role in your team’s work.

Are you convinced yet? Stay tuned for our second part of this two-part post for your quick guide to creating meeting norms for your own team.

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Ashley Fontaine profile image

Ashley Fontaine

Ashley Fontaine is a writer, mental health professional, and former nonprofit executive director. She’s on a mission to eliminate “we’ve always done it that way” from our collective vocabulary by helping leaders focus on possibilities rather than limitations. She believes organizational culture is the key to productivity and staff retention.

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