Manage Agreements, Not People

Many managers focus on managing people as their leverage for getting things done.  Since it is people who will perform the tasks and lead the projects, this focus seems appropriate.  However, there is another way to get things done that is more direct, and appears to be more effective: manage agreements, not the people.  Here is how to do that.

Agreements Make Organizations Work


An agreement is an arrangement between two or more people in which both participants concur on an arrangement, or consent to do or deliver something.  If you agree to go to lunch with someone, the two of you have concurred on a lunch date, time, and location. If you agree to take a job with an employer, you consent to (accept) the job description as a definition of your job responsibilities.

Agreements exist “in between” the parties involved.  If you and I have an agreement with each other, then the agreement is “between” the two of us, i.e., it belongs to you as much as it belongs to me.  This also means that if the agreement is broken, no matter which one of us fails to show up for lunch, it involves both of us: one of us broke the agreement, and the other is left waiting at the agreed location.

There are benefits for keeping agreements and consequences for breaking them.  Some are more significant than others: benefits of keeping agreements might range from an increase in trust to gaining valued personal or professional rewards. Consequences of broken agreements could extend as far as losing a job, a promotion, or a valued relationship. There are several negative byproducts that almost always accompany broken agreements, however, including resignation, cynicism, and resentment.

What makes agreements particularly important is that they are the basis for performance, results, and accomplishment in organizations of all kinds.  Two quite simple observations:

  1. People make agreements all the time, sometimes with a formal and explicit contract and other times informally with a nod of the head or an “OK, will do” message on their Blackberry, and
  2. When people keep their agreements, meetings happen, results are produced, and services are delivered – on time, accurately, and completely.

In other words, when people keep their agreements, things work. When they don’t, they don’t.

Managing People vs. Managing Agreements

What gets done in an organization depends on people keeping their agreements. So, it is not surprising that much of management theory and research has focused on trying to get people to do what they have agreed to do.  This has shifted the focus of management to the people themselves, asking: What makes people keep their agreements?

Management theorists have asked, “What will get people to do the high-quality job they committed to when they accepted the position, the project, or the assignment?” One answer has been to develop compensation packages that will “motivate” people to do their jobs well. Another answer is to use various performance management systems to support people in honoring their agreements. Both answers focus on managing the people, through compensation or performance systems.

An alternative and more direct way to getting things accomplished is to manage the agreements, not the people. You may not have any control over compensation systems, or performance management systems, but you can always manage the agreements that are critical for your own success. The point is to focus only on changing the agreements, not the human beings involved. (This is good news, since changing people is a specialty that is not a strong suit for most of us.)

Step 1. Make Your Agreements Explicit

Most of our agreements in the workplace are invisible or transparent. We only notice them when they are broken, i.e., when we have a problem. Job descriptions that are vague, or assignments given hastily, often leave questions about exactly what the agreement really is. Many managers are clearer about making their lunch appointments than they are about turning over a project to a staff member or colleague.

To make agreements explicit, take the time to specify:

a)   What results and outcomes are required or expected,

b)   When they are due,

c)    Why it matters to you, or the goals of the team or department,

d)   Who else could be involved in some way,

e)   Where resources and results could or should be obtained or delivered, and

f)    How the work should be performed, in the event that there are specific requirements for processing.

In other words, answer the “journalist questions” as clearly as you can. This makes it possible for everyone involved to know, at the end of the day, whether an agreement has been kept or not.

Step 2. Track Your Agreements

Peter, a manager I know, was frustrated by the lack of progress on a change he was managing.  He complained that things weren’t getting done as expected and that he was at risk of falling behind on the schedule his manager had given him.  When I asked him, “Which people are not doing the things you asked for, and what exactly are they not doing?” he could not answer the question. He said, “I don’t keep track of all the things I ask people to do. I just don’t have that kind of time!”

The lesson: Maintain an up-to-date “Agreement Tracker” – a list of all the agreements you have with people who have promised to deliver results to you, and people to whom you have promised to deliver results. If your agreements:

  1. Are important to your success,
  2. Involve results that will happen over time, i.e., are not resolved with a simple email or phone call, or
  3. Include interim results that are critical to long-term success,

then they belong on your Agreement Tracker. You do not need a complex spreadsheet. Your Agreement Tracker should include (or refer to) the agreed specifics on What-When-Why and Who-Where-How for each important agreement.

My observation is that keeping a current record of agreements is actually a time-saver, not a time-waster. Your Agreement Tracker allows you to see what agreements you have with other people and groups are currently outstanding, and when the next action or result is anticipated.

Step 3. Follow Up, Early and Often

Why keep an Agreement Tracker? It’s so you can stay alert to the progress of performance on each agreement. You owe something to someone? Someone owes something to you? Your Agreement Tracker shows you Who to talk with, When to talk with them, and What result you need to reference. Manage your agreements by knowing what they are, who they are with, and when to talk to them.

Communication about your key agreements is the lever that will ensure your successful performance.  Follow-up conversations don’t wait for the due date to arrive – they anticipate the due date, and confirm whether the agreement is on track. This serves three purposes. First, it reinforces the importance of the agreement; Second, it lets you know if things are going as planned or if there are issues that need someone’s attention; Third, it lets you update your Agreement Tracker to alert you to the next time communication will be needed.

Follow-up: Are things going according to plan? Are there problems on the horizon? You want to know early. Touch base on your most important agreements early – and often – to take the pulse of progress and perils. The purpose here is not to micromanage anyone, but to support accomplishment for everyone involved.

Here are some ideas on the kinds of things you might say in some of your follow-up conversations:

  • The next project due date is approaching and I want to be sure that you have everything you need in order to get everything done on time.
  • I know that I have a report due to you at the end of this week, and I thought I would check to see if there is anything else you’d like me to include before I finalize it?
  • The IT manager had a delay in deliveries this week, so I would like to talk with you about whether that might impact our agreement for the system upgrade.

Managing agreements is about working with people – after the agreements are made – to fulfill the agreements successfully. It includes getting and giving alerts regarding potential problems, and updates on any necessary modifications. Follow-up conversations are the opportunities to work with people to ensure their success as well as your own.


The primary difference between managing people and managing agreements is where you focus your attention.  When you shift your attention away from the characteristics and attributes of people, and toward the state and condition of your agreements with them, you are paying attention to performance, not personality or preferences.  Are the agreements alive and well, or have people forgotten about them?  If people have forgotten, what needs to be done to put the agreement back into effect?

Managing agreements means that you establish clear agreements, keep track of them, and have periodic follow-up conversations to learn how things are going. It is a way to avoid unpleasant surprises, and it also works well to develop other people in being more accountable, more aware of the importance of their agreements, and better attuned to their role in overall workplace performance.

This was reprinted with permission from The Great Managing Newsletter, vol. 9, no. 23, published by Critical Path Consultants.


One comment

  1. Thank you for this excellent description of managing by agreements. Two of my clients currently needed a refresher on this and while my materials and templates helped them effectively implement more consistent agreements, they didn’t give the reasons why or the overview of the concept.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Spam Protection by WP-SpamFree