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You can’t see them, but they’re all around you. Group norms are powerful, invisible forces that determine how we interact with others. Here’s how they shape our behaviors and how we can create ones to build high-performing teams.
“Haaaaaaaay everyone! How are we all doing today?!?”
I recognized the booming voice immediately. It was Mads, one of our best – and most boisterous — sales reps, and he was bursting through the doors of our office.
Veteran workers, accustomed to Mads’ infrequent yet euphoric and thunderous visits, jumped up and scrambled to receive his customary high-fives and back slaps.
Newer ones looked at each other in shock and horror, as if to ask, “Who is this person violating our quiet work area?”
It was a classic clash of group norms. Mads’ loud, gregarious nature had run smack-dab into our quieter, collegial workspace at headquarters. Never mind that he arrived bearing candy, Mads had created a disturbance in an otherwise hushed and more “corporate” space – one where some 50 people work and voices rarely rise above a loud whisper or 55 to 60 decibels.
Group norms are the organizational version of being quiet in a library. Think of them as “Golden Rules” for groups. They’re those unspoken yet mutually understood rules that govern how we behave in group settings. The only time we notice them is when they’re violated.
If you look closely enough, you’ll see them everywhere. Ending meetings a few minutes early so others can make their next one on time. Knowing not to call coworkers at night with issues that can wait until the morning. Eating lunch in a designated area and not at our desks. Videoconference participants who know to cheerily wave goodbye when signing off.
These powerful, invisible forces are critical to the success of our organizations by helping groups avoid conflict, save time and function more smoothly. Group norms often spring up organically over time, with minimal upfront discussion, or sometimes none at all. As new members join the group, they tend to adapt to the established norms.
Because norms are crucial to group success, the consequences of violating them can be substantial. Broken or ignored norms can result in conflict and loss of trust among team members, which damages morale and inhibits team performance.
New Norms for New Ways of Working
Yet new ways of working are reshaping our conversation about group norms. Technology enables us to create virtual teams and ad hoc groups with members anywhere and representing widely varying cultures, personalities, workstyles and positions in the organization.
Also, when work becomes virtual and colleagues are remote, the company culture and values that dictate norms and drive behavior are not as strong a force as when all are physically together and adapting socially. Thus, previously tacit agreements must now be articulated.
All that, plus the fact that virtual teams are time-sensitive and don’t enjoy the luxury of being able to develop norms over time, requires them to create group norms before beginning their work. Here are six tips for creating effective norms for virtual teams:
Group norms are powerful, invisible forces that influence behaviors and drive our productivity. And as we saw firsthand, when they collide, things can get pretty interesting. I think I may ask Mads to phone ahead before his next visit.