Sometimes when teams are not functioning well, we search for deeper answers than we need to.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of revisiting group norms and making sure that:

1.  There are some

2.  They are the right ones–they facilitate the mission and effective operation of the team

3.  Everyone knows what they are and agrees on them

4.  They are based on values

Perhaps this last one is the trickiest.  Can you explain, in terms of a value, what each of your group norms is based on?   Without this, norms may seem arbitrary or even contradictory to team members and they won’t stick on a long-term basis. 

Here’s an example.  On my mountain rescue team, we value safety as our top priority.  We have many standards of behavior based on this value, including that everyone must wear helmets in rockfall areas, all rope systems must be doublechecked by a “safety officer”, and everyone must wear an avalanche beacon in the field during avalanche season.  If we suddenly decided to create a norm that says everyone must wear an avalanche beacon in the field during the month of July, or everyone must wear helmets while conducting a search in an open field, these norms would not stick because they are no longer based on the value of safety.  Perhaps we still have a clear reason for creating them—e.g. because doing these things consistently, all year round and regardless of terrain, will help us to never forget them—but because they no longer make sense to us in terms of our values, they are not likely to stick.  In fact, they may undermine the team’s established norms in the process. 

Let’s translate this to a typical workplace example.  Perhaps one of our team’s values is that team members’ time is valuable.  A norm based on this value is that meetings will start and end on time, and another is that there will be an agenda to keep everyone focused.  If we suddenly create a standard that says all meetings must begin with a round robin update on each team member’s functional area, and this norm is not perceived to uphold the value of team members’ time, we will have trouble maintaining that norm.  Not only that, but people may begin violating another norm by showing up late to the meetings, since they feel that their time is being wasted.  We often shoot ourselves in the foot by creating norms that contradict our stated values.

When there is a team norm issue, whether it be lack of norms, lack of agreement about them, or a value contradiction, it sometimes pays to put everyone in a room to do a little work on the issue.  Discuss the values of the team, and examine the standards of behavior attached to them.  Identify inconsistencies and gaps.  The time you spend here could make your team measurably more efficient and effective.

What other ways have you seen teams run afoul because of basic issues with team norms?  And what have you done about it?


  1. One of the major problems with getting team norms to stick is each member’s unwillingness to hold their peers accountable. This is so critical to the life of that particular productive norm. Like you said, “and this norm is not perceived to uphold the value of team members’ time, we will have trouble maintaining that norm.”

    I recently posted on organizational norms. Much of the same pieces in teams also apply to organizations as a whole.

    Check it out. Give me some feedback.

  2. Perry, your blog entry on norms was very useful, thanks for posting the link! I espcially liked the group exercise.