The Four Agreements: Timeless Toltec Wisdom for Modern Managers

A Fusion of Ancient Principles and Cutting-Edge Research

As a manager and executive, I often explore various sources of wisdom to enhance my understanding and share valuable insights with my teams and colleagues. Today, I want to introduce you to some enlightening principles rooted in ancient Toltec wisdom that can positively impact your personal life, professional growth, and team management. These principles are beautifully encapsulated in a book called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.

Be impeccable with your word: In your role as a manager, clear and honest communication is paramount. Strive to speak with integrity, commit only to promises you can fulfill, and refrain from using language that could belittle or offend others. Cultivate a positive and nurturing work environment by encouraging teamwork, collaboration, and mutual respect through the power of words. Research in leadership and management highlights the importance of transparent communication for team performance and employee engagement. In their book The Leadership Challenge, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner emphasize the significance of credibility and trust in effective leadership.

"Constituents look for leaders who demonstrate an enthusiastic and genuine belief in the capacity of others, who strengthen people’s will, who supply the means to achieve, and who express optimism for the future. Constituents want leaders who remain passionate despite obstacles and setbacks. In today’s uncertain times, leaders with a positive, confident, can-do approach to life and business are desperately needed. " - Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner

Don't take anything personally: In the business world, it's essential to recognize that feedback, criticism, or others' behavior often stems from their personal viewpoints rather than your value as a manager or individual. Conflict in professional settings can be categorized into two types: affective conflict and cognitive conflict. The affective conflict revolves around interpersonal incompatibilities and emotional tensions, whereas cognitive conflict focuses on task-related disagreements and differences of opinion.
As a manager, understanding the distinction between affective and cognitive conflict can help you build emotional resilience and maintain a clear perspective on your goals and objectives. Embrace cognitive conflicts as opportunities to explore diverse perspectives and foster innovation while minimizing affective conflicts that could harm team dynamics and collaboration. By detaching yourself from others' opinions or actions, especially in affective conflicts, you'll be better equipped to remain focused on your objectives and foster a positive team environment.
Research in management and leadership emphasizes the importance of effectively managing both affective and cognitive conflicts for team performance and organizational success. Jehn (1995) conducted a study on intragroup conflict and found that cognitive conflict can enhance group decision-making, while affective conflict can impede group performance. Additionally, De Dreu and Weingart (2003) demonstrated that effective conflict management is crucial for team performance and highlighted the importance of fostering cognitive conflict while minimizing affective conflict.

Don't make assumptions: Transparent and open communication is the cornerstone of effective team management. Steer clear of assuming what your team members might think or feel; instead, ask questions and practice active listening to avoid miscommunications or conflicts. Create an atmosphere where everyone feels at ease expressing their thoughts and concerns. Amy Edmondson's concept of psychological safety emphasizes the importance of fostering an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas without fear of retribution. Furthermore, Dr. Julia Milner's research on leadership coaching highlights the significance of active listening and effective communication in successful team management.

For a team to discover gaps in its plans and make changes accordingly, team members must test assumptions and discuss differences of opinion openly rather than privately or outside the group." - Amy Edmondson

Always do your best: Endeavor to give your best effort in every situation, bearing in mind that your best might fluctuate based on factors like stress levels, energy, and external circumstances. Consistently delivering your best sets a positive example for your team and minimizes regrets or self-doubt. This approach also fosters a growth mindset and emphasizes the importance of continuous improvement. Carol Dweck's research on growth mindset underscores the significance of embracing challenges and learning from setbacks in the pursuit of professional success. Carol Dweck is a professor at Stanford University. Her research focuses on the difference between a "fixed mindset," where individuals believe their talents and abilities are fixed traits, and a "growth mindset," where individuals believe they can develop their talents and abilities through effort, learning, and persistence.
You can watch this TED presentation for an overview:

By incorporating these principles into your management approach, you'll witness a more productive, engaged, and supportive team environment, ultimately contributing to the success of your projects and the organization as a whole. So, let's embrace these lessons and elevate our leadership skills for the modern era, backed by the wisdom of prominent leadership experts and cutting-edge research.


David, Susan. (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. London: Penguin Life

De Dreu, C. K. W., & Weingart, L. R. (2003). Task versus relationship conflict, team performance, and team member satisfaction: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(4), 741-749.

Dweck, Carol S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly 44, no. 4: 350–383.

Jehn, K. A. (1995). A Multimethod Examination of the Benefits and Detriments of Intragroup Conflict. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40(2), 256-282.

Milner, Julia & Mccarthy, Grace & Milner, Trenton. (2018). Training for the coaching leader: how organizations can support managers. Journal of Management Development. 37. 00-00. 10.1108/JMD-04-2017-0135.

Ruiz, Miguel Paramio. (1997). The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom.

Image credit: Telamones Tula
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