Effective Teams Part 3: How to Influence Team Norms

In a recent post, I described how group norms can have a strong effect on team performance. With this blog post, I want to ask and address, how do these norms develop and is there anything that can be done about it?

How and When Team Norms Develop

  • All teams have norms that guide behavior towards conformity.
  • Norms of previous groups we have belonged to influence our expectations of others’ behavior in future teams.
  • Early team interactions establish norms.
  • Norms exist around behaviors that hold some significance to the team.
  • Informal norms develop to support the team mission.
  • Norms are more likely to be set during periods of time when there is uncertainty about what to do and how to behave.
  • Informally set norms can often transcend competing formal guidelines.

The establishment of norms is an activity that is generally ignored by team leaders and team members. Anything you read about team performance is likely to advise you to establish expectations, guidelines, etc. but this is often disregarded, especially when a team is assigned an urgent or critical task and is eager to get to work. Then, when a conflict arises, it is discovered that the members had different expectations.

How to Influence Norms

  • Because norms are highly influenced by early interactions, one way to establish the team norms you desire is to be very deliberate when building your team.
  • If there are existing norms, determine what they are (observation, interview, or simply ask team to identify) and then get the rest of the team to realize and identify the influence on their behavior.
  • If norms need changed or to be added, brainstorm a list of behavioral guidelines that will make the team more effective. Make sure the entire team is involved in this activity. Consensus must be reached.
  • The difference between desired norms and current behavior is a gap and must be dealt with as any other change initiative.
  • Once established, write down the new norms and keep them visible. Onboard new team members with these expectations.
  • Deal with unwanted behavior (deviation from norms) quickly and make the lessons known publically.

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  • Rita Jaskolla

    Do you have a simple example which we can follow here?
    Thank you!

    • Sure… Three men start a company. On their first meeting one comes wearing chinos and a polo shirt because that’s what they wore in retail; another comes from corporate, wearing slacks and a tie; and the third comes from a start-up wearing jeans and sneakers. This is because the norms of their previous work groups influenced their expectations of appropriate attire. The next time they meet, the corporate guy will likely skip the tie and the guy with jeans will wear ones that don’t have holes in them in an effort to conform a bit towards the other two.

      If one wanted to influence the dress code, the earliest meeting days would be the best time to do it and another opportunity would come when new team members were hired. They could also have an explicit discussion on what they wanted to wear and whether there would be dressing up for clients and dressing down for Fridays, etc. There are also some more examples in Part II of this series.

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  • such a nice post.

  • Leandrea Taylor

    Deal with unwanted behavior (deviation from norms) quickly and make the lessons known publically. – Please clarify this statement. I noticed you stated make the lesson known and no the person who deviated.

  • “M”

    So … in the face of this

    “All teams have norms that guide behavior towards conformity”

    – which,, based on the way it’s phrased here, is apparently seen as not only a universal standard, but also a desirable one –

    what are any ways you might suggest being able to persuade a given group (or team) of the inherent value of diversity …?