Main idea: Team members need to know and agree to the norms of conduct of the team and why they are important for execution. The behaviors and actions form the culture of the team and define who they are. Leaders need to be deliberate in establishing the core norms of conduct. This blog presents four recommendations to improve effective team norms.
This is the 4th blog in a 6-part blog series on teams. Read the first blog of the series here.
Imagine watching your team like a silent movie on the big screen. Would you be able to see the story unfold? Who are the antagonists? What drama is playing out? Could you determine if it’s a sad or happy film? Or maybe it’s a horror film?! “Do not go near the water cooler!”... “They always go to the water cooler.”
The ways in which individual team members interact with each other evolve over time and eventually settles into a routine of engagement. The routines form the basis of culture and the importance they play in teams is often overlooked. Once these interactions are locked in they can be very difficult to break.
Very few managers consciously observe and reflect on how their team members interact. This includes the values they express, the attitudes that form, and other nuances that become the norms of the team. The behaviors that emerge from the team interactions create order and the norms of conduct are the rules in which individuals operate.
The damage that can be caused by unhealthy norms may seem benign at first. Late meeting deadlines, unresponsiveness to email requests, preferential treatment, unwillingness to learn, and withholding information are just a few of the behavioral norms I’ve seen up close. At best they are a nuisance, at worst they are toxic to the organization’s mission.
Left unattended, the norms of conduct that emerge can be detrimental to teams and organizations.
Leadership complacency is often the enemy of developing effective team behaviors. Observing how team members are interacting and keeping a pulse on the unspoken rules being formed is a challenging social skill, particularly in remote work environments. This is not a burden to carry for just the person with the leadership title, but all members. The norms of conduct are usually unspoken and not apparent until they are broken.
Being complacent to the behaviors and the ways to interact as a team is dangerous. This becomes the culture that eats your strategy for breakfast. Don’t let this happen. Take an active role in defining and ensuring your team adheres to the norms of conduct. These are the social rules that enable teamwork, customer and partner relationships, and long-term learning.
Teams with healthy norms of conduct quickly pull through times of distress, communicate more effectively, develop trust faster, and have generally far less drama and distractions.
Define the behaviors of what is considered effective norms of conduct.
This isn’t a mission statement or a nice sounding list of values to proclaim. These are competitive differentiators unique to your team and the context in which the team operates. Be explicit and thorough in defining how the team will conduct its business. These behaviors may include more generally accepted expectations such as arriving on time to meetings, but what we’re intending here is something more meaningful and directly related to team performance.
An example of a more meaningful norm of conduct would be teams that have established agreements on how to respond to executive requests. Another example may be how teams adjust to various types of customers. Each scenario is considered high profile and high risk, which begs the need to have clear operating norms and behavioral expectations.
Leaders must be deliberate and thoughtful in defining the norms of conduct of the team.
Leaders create the conditions for the norms of conduct to become hard-wired. Over time, team members will learn to monitor themselves, but this will take time. Here are some of the first steps leaders can take to set up the conditions for establishing effective norms of conduct.
1. Consciously define the team norms of conduct, model the behaviors, and be consistent.
This seems obvious, but rarely have I seen a leader be able to articulate the norms expected by the team when it comes to team interactions and task execution. This is the fastest way to fail and the quickest path to developing unhealthy norms in the team. The best leaders I’ve worked with invest the time to communicate expected behaviors and dedicate the time to defining the behaviors with the team.
2. Actively manage the behaviors. Don’t let complacency sneak in.
This could be done by making it a formal part of 1-1 meetings and regular business reviews in the same way business metrics are discussed. The best leaders I have worked with installed team health metrics into their business reviews that asked teams to report on the quality of their team interactions and degree of adherence to the agreed-upon team behaviors. These metrics are future indicators of team performance. At first, it can feel uncomfortable because most team members will not have developed the level of trust and emotional intelligence needed to evaluate behavioral interactions, but it becomes easier when reviewed on a dashboard.
3. Evaluate the most critical tasks and agree on the optimal behaviors needed for the team to execute.
How is information shared through the process? Is it clear who makes decisions at each step? Who responds to requests from different stakeholders? How is new information and learning embedded? What is acceptable escalation procedures? How much autonomy do team members have in how their tasks are executed? Starting with these types of questions and the tactical behaviors is an easy place to start.
However, there are also the more uncomfortable social norms that need to be agreed upon. Is interrupting team members an accepted way to communicate? How about punctuality? What listening behaviors will be rewarded? Is it ok to sit back and observe team discussions or is everyone expected to contribute? Should information be shared pro-actively or is it better to only share information when requested? These are the types of questions groups should be actively defining as group norms.
4. Reinforce and encourage team monitoring.
In order for team norms to evolve more naturally, team members need to develop the ability to monitor themselves and hold each other accountable. The behaviors of the group will come from leadership expectations, individual values, and emerge through interactions over time. Being aware of the behaviors and recognizing when norms are being violated or evolving is critical for teams that want to maintain their culture and the trust that forms from agreed upon team norms.
Write down the behaviors you observe within your team. Which behaviors are helping or hindering? Evaluate the most critical tasks and supporting behaviors. Schedule time to discuss as a team and look for ways to rewire healthy norms into the group processes.
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Read the first blog of the series here.
About the author:
Kris Potrafka, Ph.D. is the Founder and CEO of Music Firsthand, a music technology start-up. He is a former Operations and HR executive working with leaders to solve complex organizational development challenges. Follow Kris on Medium and connect with him on LinkedIn.