Why You Need a Social Contract

Boost your productivity by defining how you communicate


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Why You Need a Social Contract

Software is usually built from lots of small pieces, each with a particular job to do. The pieces obey a set of rules when they talk to each other – like a contract for communication. “If you send me X, I’ll send you back Y”, and so on. This approach allows software developers to focus on one area at a time, without worrying how changes in one area affect all the other pieces. As long as the contracts are preserved, everything will still work.

I’ve been thinking about applying this approach to other areas of my life. I’m not a software component, but I still present an interface to the world. If I define what that interface looks like, then I’ll be a consistent person to deal with. And I know I find consistency to be one of the most attractive traits in a colleague. Dependable people who deliver what I expect based on a given set of inputs are my cup of tea.

What Would a Social Contract Look Like?

Another trick from software development is viewing things as a black box. Instead of considering all the complexity within a system, you treat it like a magic box that takes inputs and produces outputs.

Humans can be viewed in the same way. As complex as we are, we have a limited set of inputs and outputs. For instance, my colleagues can reach me through these inputs:

  • Email
  • Instant messaging
  • Text message / WhatsApp
  • Phone call

My outputs are the responses to the above inputs, plus anything I create and share of my own accord. If you send me an email, you may get a response. If you call my phone, I might pick up. If you send me a Slack message, I might share the link to a presentation. And so on.

A social contract is an attempt to fit some rules over these inputs and outputs. It creates predictable if-X-then-Y behaviours, that give others confidence in how you’ll respond.

Here are some rules you could derive from my behaviour at work:

  • If you email me, I will respond within 24 hours. Even if it’s a holding message.
  • I won’t send you an instant message unless it’s urgent.
  • If you send me an instant message, I’ll respond in a few hours. (I switched off my notifications, so “instant” doesn’t mean instant for me.)
  • If something is life-and-death urgent, call me twice and I’ll pick up anywhere. (This rule applies to my family).
  • If you send me a meeting invite without an agenda, I will email you asking for an agenda.
  • If you email me asking for something, I will ask when it’s needed by. If your response fits my priorities, I guarantee to deliver you what you asked for.

A collection of all these rules would be my social contract.

What are the Benefits of a Social Contract?

In the book Essentialism, Greg McKeown talks about the one decision that makes a thousand. The idea is to stop making countless tiny decisions each day and make fewer high-level decisions about how to live your life. Those guiding decisions provide constraints to govern how you behave each day. This reduces decision fatigue and lets you focus on what matters.

A social contract is one of those high-level decisions. You spend time, once, deciding how to react to a variety of situations. This is then codified in your contract, which guides the thousands of decisions you would otherwise make each day.

This means when someone sends you a meeting invite without an agenda, you don’t agonise over how to handle it. You execute your contract – sending back a short email asking for an agenda. No decision required.

Your colleagues will appreciate your social contract even if you don’t share it with them. By following a set of rules, you’ll become a predictable person to deal with. They will send you an email, confident you will respond in a reasonable timeframe. This means you’ll get fewer chaser emails or instant messages, which colleagues resort to if they don’t trust you’ll get back to them.

How to Make Your Social Contract

To start building your social contract, think about the forms of communication you use. These may include:

  • Email
  • Phone calls
  • Web conferencing
  • Text messages / WhatsApp
  • Instant messaging
  • Social media
  • Shared documents (Word, PowerPoint etc.)

Where it makes sense, decide what your response time will be. For instance, you might decide to answer email within 48 hours, but answer instant messages during the same working day.

Having established the timeframes, make sure your notification settings and calendar reflect this. For instance, if your goal is to respond to emails within 48 hours, you can check email once a day. Similarly, if you will respond to instant messages within a few hours, you don’t need notifications switched on. Instead, schedule short blocks to process these.

The next steps depend on your circumstances, but broadly speaking you need to dive into each item and define how you’ll behave in various scenarios. Here are some example scenarios and corresponding rules to get you thinking:

  • You’re on the CC list of an email → You will automatically file in a folder and will read if you have time.
  • You’re given an action without a date → You will respond and ask “When do you need this by?”.
  • Someone starts an instant message with “Hi” and nothing else → You will ignore this.
  • You’re invited to an internal web conference → You will join with webcam enabled, regardless of everyone else.
  • Someone calls from an unknown number → You will let it go to answerphone, but will listen immediately to the message. If it warrants a response, you will call back immediately.
  • A piece of work you have promised is going to be late → You will email as soon as this is apparent, setting a clear expectation of the new date.

Defining these rules is an iterative process. Don’t worry about completing it on the first pass. The idea is to make mindful choices each time you encounter a new scenario. If it’s likely the situation will occur again, codify it in your social contract.

Whether you actually write this contract down is up to you. I’ve been inadvertently building my social contract for several years, so most of this is cemented in my brain. But if you’re just beginning to think about this stuff, jotting it down in a table is probably helpful.

Publishing Your Social Contract

As a final thought experiment – what would the world be like if we all published our social contracts?

Let me start by saying I haven’t done this (yet). But I’m tempted. Sharing a detailed description of “this is how I work” with your colleagues and family could be very helpful. Or disastrous. I can’t decide.

I often think back to an auto-response I received from a colleague that said:

Thank you for emailing me. Because I was CC-ed, I will only read this if I get the time.

If you’d need me to definitely read it, please re-send with me on the TO-list.

Personally, I loved receiving that.