More About the Need for Explicit Agreements

Two group facilitators with decades of experience living in intentional community speak to why we resist making explicit agreements or contracts, and also point to why we need to do so:

We say relationships have been commodified when people begin to tally what they’re getting and what they are giving. This tallying influences behavior as people attempt to buy favor or favors with their words and actions. When our thoughts about how to engage with a partner, neighbor, or coworker revolve around what we will get out of that engagement, or what that person is worth to us, we’ve lost our way in terms of connection. This leads to conflict and some really bad decisions in part because we are really bad at tallying. Whether it’s doing dishes or a community maintaining common property, people generally overestimate their own contributions (which they see easily) and underestimate the contributions of others (which are less visible). This leaves almost everyone feeling like they are getting a bad deal. The other extreme is tied to low self worth and assumes everyone else is contributing more. This results in anxiety and insecurity. …Martyrs invest to the point of self sacrifice, expecting that this will be rewarded with belonging and loyalty from their group. Those rewards are rarely delivered. (Ludwig & Gimnig, 2020, p. 124)  

Community minded people would agree with these facilitators that what matters most in community is human connection. The importance of contracts is that they can (a) help us carry on through the inevitable times that connection is strained, (b) mediate a mismatch in reciprocity style, and (c) protect the unsuspecting from people who can convince others (and maybe even themselves) that they are givers but are actually takers (i.e., “agreeable takers”).

Contracts are not to force people to do something that they refuse to do; they’re to get clear on what we can agree to do and warn people not to join if they don’t agree with the need to do it. Contracts are to create a boundary, perhaps primarily so that when someone is outside of that boundary, they can be immediately asked to step back into compliance. Contracts set up a situation where repeated violations can be noticed and discussed so that the members of the community who are prone to be forgiving, more lenient in imposing consequences, and ever giving the benefit of the doubt, do not create an unfairly adverse environment for those who feel most violated an affected by a non-compliant member.

Without clear rules and contracts, there are fewer ways to curb bad behavior and self-interested motivations:

  • every decision rests on a popularity contest
  • every decision becomes subject to “might makes right”
  • those who give kickbacks to build up personal alliances will undermine the group for their own self-interest
  • dark triad types can accrue increasingly more power without others noticing until they take over

Reference: Ludwig, Y., & Gimnig, K. (2020). The cooperative culture handbook. Foundation for Intentional Community.