The Pervasive Nature of Team Norms

Norms are unwritten rules that guide human behavior and can be observed whenever boarding elevators or navigating airport security lines. Most people  “know” what to do when boarding an elevator full of strangers: enter the elevator, go directly to the back, turn around and face the door, fixate on the floor number indicator, don’t make eye contact or engage in conversation, and quickly exit at the desired floor. Likewise, road warriors know the airport security line routine and get irritated when stuck behind inexperienced travelers. Norms are rarely written down but everyone is expected to abide them; those who don’t are seen as rubes.

How do norms relate to building teams? Research shows norms develop early in a group’s history, as people will quickly establish informal rules for seating arrangements, pecking orders, meeting schedules and behaviors, dress codes, presentation formats and styles, decision-making processes, work hand-offs, response times, TLAs (three letter acronyms), performance standards, and the like. These rules are essentially work shortcuts, and the longer a group has been together, the more entrenched its norms. Because a team’s “rules of the road” are usually implicit, newbies can inadvertently annoy more seasoned veterans by wearing the “wrong” clothes, sitting in the “wrong” seats, or raising “forbidden” topics.  

Norms have a potent effect on team member behavior and culture and many team performance problems are caused by dysfunctional norms. Sometimes team norms are poorly conceived at the start, other times norms fail to adapt to changes in team context, goals, and membership. Norms represent a powerful lever that leaders can use to change team dynamics, and those pertaining to meetings, communication, decision-making, and accountability often have the most impact on team performance. Those leaders wanting to build high performing teams will need to insure these four norms are: (a) explicit; and (b) aligned with team goals and team member roles. Surprisingly, many leaders are either oblivious to or do not know how to change team norms.