How Creating Designer Norms Elevates Teamwork

A creative business team busy at a meeting

In Learn The Most Powerful Tool for Managing Peer Motivation, I told you about the best tool I know for managing peer motivation (if you find a better one let me know). Today, I’ll share my keys for creating designer norms (as in forming, storming, norming…) in teams.

Why do norms matter? Well, did you brush your teeth this morning? Hug your spouse? Smile and say “Good morning” to others as you greeted them? And if so, was this normal, desired, and expected behavior on your part?

Norms are the set of normal, desired, and expected operating behavior that can be observed readily in any group. Unless you are paying attention, you don’t see them, since they are “normal.” Most of us don’t pay attention to them, but norms are critical in teams because they dictate how the team interacts to get things done. And team performance rises and falls on the dynamics of trust, goodwill and cooperation, and respect for individuals — dynamics that ride on the currents of team interaction.

Let’s apply this to relevant team experiences

In your most recent team, did you take 100 percent responsibility for your work, communication, and actions? Did you keep every agreement you made, or own the breakdown and clean it up at the first opportunity? Did you support all of your teammates, even when you disagreed with them? More importantly, did all of your teammates behave like this so that it was normal, desired, and expected?

Or did you and your teammates weasel out of work and engage in behavior that you’d be ashamed to truly own? Did you make agreements you didn’t or couldn’t keep, and then pretended you never made them? Did you create in-groups and out-groups within the team, harming the collective performance? And if so, was this behavior normal and expected (even if not desired)?

Since norms are so important, how do they get established?

Norms get established in groups in two ways: it can happen by default, or it can happen by design. The default method predominates, of course, in groups most of the time. In the default method, members do what they do naturally in that setting and other members provide feedback in the form of acceptance or nonacceptance of the behavior. It’s that simple.

Think of being in a classroom or a meeting and noticing how to get your voice into the conversation. Do you have to raise your hand, speak up, catch the eye of the teacher or moderator? That’s figuring out a norm.

Sometimes, by default, all the norms that support effective team dynamics fall into place naturally. It’s great when that happens, but more frequently it doesn’t, and then the default norms that evolve can hurt rather than support team interaction. That’s where designer norms come into play.

So how do you create designer norms?

Easy, actually. You make and keep agreements about behavior that supports the team reaching high performance. Most groups are experienced at making behavioral agreements — often called operating agreements or rules of engagement. Where most groups fall down is in keeping them.

Only make agreements you are willing and intend to enforce with each other — and be intolerant of the smallest violation

Expect agreements to be violated just the way you expect code to be buggy at first — but don’t tolerate it. This will help you make only agreements that you are willing and intend to enforce with each other. Then learn to be intolerant of the smallest violation. Call violations as soon as they occur, and with appropriate force — usually just less than or equal to the force of the violation — while it is a small deal it requires minimal force.

The real key is that creating designer norms has more to do with what you are willing to accept than with your ability to paper the wall with agreements, so raise your standards. With practice you can become extremely skilled at creating designer norms in any group that will elevate the teamwork.

Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide. Master leadership or build a responsible team (or family) with The Leadership Gift.




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