#7 Team Norms

In today’s episode, Pilar covers the five areas under which team norms develop and why we should pay attention for these unspoken rules that are emerging in our team.

Like it or not, your behaviour as manager, as team leader or as official person leading a team, really matters. Group norms develop as team members learn through experience what behaviours are acceptable and which aren’t. These norms develop over time, as different people watch others in the team and adapt their own behaviour accordingly – either consciously or sometimes, even subconsciously.

Group norms are those unspoken rules that emerge as people work together. They are part of a team’s identity and culture. Some norms will be helpful but others will be unhelpful, so, at the very least, we should be aware of what they are.

If as managers we are unaware of our own behaviour, we might well be planting the seed for an unhelpful group norm to emerge. The simplest example that comes to mind is attendance to meetings. If we always wait for latecomers to arrive before we start a meeting, either in person or online, then a norm will develop that says that it’s ok to be late for meetings in this team.

So, allow me to invite you for a little bit more of a guided coffee today. To just say, “Let’s assess our team’s norms” can be quite daunting. Where do we start? If we have a new team, how can we influence our team members so that healthy norms develop?

As we’re dealing with human behaviour, and even the more challenging  behaviour in groups, how about breaking our thinking down into different kinds of group norms?

To guide you through this, I’ve tapped into a great textbook called Organisational Behaviour in Organisations by Baron and Cohen.

When breaking down the kind of norms we might see in teams, we can talk about norms around Openess and Honesty, Taking Responsibility, Working with Others, Following the Rules and Use of Resources.

This is quite an interesting breakdown, which can also help us to look at differences in our team. Sometimes individual team members seem at odds with others. There might even be some conflict in a team if people view these aspects of working in an organisation differently.

Take ‘Openess and Honesty’. If you are someone who likes guarding their work and only sharing small bits of information on a needs to know basis, and you’re working with someone who much prefers transparency, who doesn’t mind everyone knowing what they’re working on etc., there are bound to be clashes between you. You might think they’re requiring you to share too much and they might think you don’t trust them enough. So, as well as using these five aspects of working together to identify our team norms, we can use them to figure out what might be causing friction amongst team members.

Right, let’s start with ‘Openess and honesty‘. Well, there’s not much more to add to the example I’ve given you. What is acceptable behaviour in your team? And here, it’s worth to look at this behaviour within the team and in relation to other teams and the rest of the organisation.

Does your team believe their work should be kept secret? Or are they happy to be open about their process, their failures, their success… This is especially important if you’re working in a virtual team, as most communication will be written down, which in a way seems to be more definite. When you speak, the words disappear, but in the written form, they might stay around forever.

So this is a discussion worth having with your team at some point, especially if you’re going to be working together from different locations.

The next area under which group norms develop is ‘Taking responsibility for your actions‘. Are people ready in your team to say, “Sorry, my fault”. Or is it always a question of, “Yes, but I was waiting for Laura to get back to me, so I couldn’t finish that piece of work, and I thought, you don’t like to be disturbed, so I didn’t want to tell you it was going to be late…”

What about the more general aspect, “What does it mean to work with others”? Are people ready to share the credit with others in the team or does shared accountability just happen when things go wrong? Do your people speak about “we” or “I” when they talk about their team? How about you, what do you use? And do you change your language depending on whether what you’re talking about can be regarded as positive or negative?

Let’s move on, what about ‘Following the rules‘? What happens in your team? Are rules followed to the letter? Or are you a group of loose cannons who do whatever they want in the organisation?

My guess is that it’s something in between, but you’ll have a tendency towards one of the poles. You might just work within the boundaries of your organisation, or maybe you are a team that sees itself as being able to work around the rules and culture of the organisation to get your work done. Again, this might be an area of disagreement or even conflict between team members, so worth thinking about…

How about the ‘Use of resources‘? Are you a team that looks for the most cost-effective (or cheap) solutions, or do you enjoy spending large budgets without thinking of where the money is coming from?

So, before I quickly recap on these five different aspects of team norms, it’s worth thinking about why we’re looking at them. These are the unspoken rules in our team, they form part of our identity and will influence how others see us too. They might even guide people’s decision-making.

So, if nothing else, it’s worth being aware of what these norms are. And if some of them are causing us trouble or are being unhelpful (and by “unhelpful” I mean that they’re stopping us from doing our best work or are leading to problems) between team members or in the organisation, then they will be worth addressing.

At the same time, it’s also worth noting that if someone is not “fitting in” the team, it could well be that they are at odds with the team’s norms, that they feel like they need to act in a way that goes against their own principles and nature – that is worth addressing too.

I’m afraid to say that how you deal with any of that will be left up to you, as every case will be very, very different.

So, a quick recap:

I’ve very quickly talked you through:

Openess and Honesty,
Taking Responsibility,
Working with Others,
Following the Rules and
Use of Resources.

Well, the café is getting full and I need to go, but, if you’d like to stay a bit longer at the table, how about thinking through the behaviour in your team, whether you are all in one physical space or distributed, or a bit of both, and having a little mental evaluation of your team norms.

Are they helping your work?
Are there any that you think, ah, we could do with changing that, that’s not helpful.

If you’re looking at changing anything, I can think of two ways in which you can do that: by openly  having a conversation with your team or by starting role modeling a different behaviour. Your behaviour as a manager is in the spotlight and sometimes, you and your reactions to others’ behaviours will be the barometer of what behaviour is acceptable or not.

Even though I’ve got to go now, I’d love to hear whether have indeed tackled unhelpful norms in your team and how you went about it. And of course, I’d love to hear what team norms you are proud of.

Oh yes, I almost forgot, I have a small book recommendation for you today. The subject matters is a little bit broader than this café, but I think you’ll find it interesting. The book is “The Upside of Irrationality”, by Dan Ariely. The book explains why a lot of our behaviour, both in and out of work, seems irrational at times and it asks important questions about why we continue to create environments that squash people’s motivation to do a good job. Plus, Ariely is a great storyteller, and if you enjoy this book, he’s got a few more. And if you don’t fancy reading, look for his talks on the TedTalk website.

Ok, now, I’m off. I hope you enjoy your day and I’ll see you soon.

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