Simon Terry

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A Conversation About Norms

We live between norms and force. When norms lose their power, force becomes the alternative option. For effective organisations and civil society, we need an ongoing conversation about expectations of behaviour.

Noticing Norms

David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address begins with a story

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes,
“What the hell is water?”

Social norms are often like water to the young fish. In the Oxford dictionary, norms are defined as:

A standard or pattern, especially of social behaviour, that is typical or expected

We don’t even notice they exist. They are simply baked into our expectations of social interactions. We follow the most common norms without reflecting on their existence. Often the first time we focus on them is in our outrage at a breach of a norm.

Norms shape group and individual behaviours. Norms that are undiscussed, and in some cases undiscussable, can have real consequences for individuals and societies ability to manage and change. These norms are also a critical component of group connection. Loss of shared norms will impact cohesion, sharing and collaboration in a group.

While many norms are taken as given, they are not fixed. Our expectations are constantly adapting based on our experience of the behaviour of others. Sustained violation of norms can and will cause change. This is one reason that so many protesters violate social norms. They want to disrupt a range of expectations to gain notice and to influence people to reflect on the need for change. Where change has been driven by social change movements, the changes are largely positive for society with new norms being more inclusive, equitable and better able to support civil society.

The Power of Norms

‪We live between norms and force. When norms lose their power, force becomes the alternative option to regulate social behaviour. The functioning of our organisations and our civil society depends on effective norms.

Over summer I read Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, a book that examines the lessons from traditional societies. The book explores how many tribal societies experienced life that involved continuing violence. The violence was an outcome of the challenges of sustain norms between tribal groups, leadership within tribes depending on authority and because disputes were often resolved by force. Many of the mechanisms we expect to prevent violence, such as peaceful acceptance of strangers, were not norms in these societies, because they represented real dangers to individuals and the group.

Change movements often seek to smash existing norms. Equally important is the need to foster and develop the new behavioural expectations that will follow. In the absence of shared expectations, any group will increasingly have to use force to maintain behaviour in a group or fail in its shared endeavours.

Let’s consider an example of the justice system. What makes our laws effective is not the courts or a constitution. The first element is a community expectation that we will follow the law, respect the courts and honour those decisions.  When individuals fail these norms, the executive branch of government has a range of force to bring to bear on social behaviour and enforce the law. We simply expect that the courts and the executive will collaborate to maintain the law. The history of the breakdown in civil societies around the world shows us that this is one of the first norms to fail.

Norms in Organisations

In organisations, the equivalent force is the power of exclusion. Few organisations have the power to use force against their employees except to show them from the premises. Misbehave persistently and you will be sacked and denied an ability to remain in the community. Exclusion presents a cost to the individual and a loss of capability to the organisation. Exclusion of large groups can be incredibly disruptive as strikes and lockouts show.

Organisations depend on norms to keep the peace and to foster cohension and collaboration. A few of those norms are on posters. Many are inherited from the society in which the organisation operates. As our organisations involve more temporary workers and as they become more open to the networks around them, managing these group norms becomes more important.

Most of those norms are never discussed. Some are seen as undiscussable. Rather than force people to exit when they have an issue with norms, we have offer people the alternative of voice. Exit is too easy in our networked era. Voice should be the easiest option. Encourage people to discuss their issues openly, especially those seen as hardest to raise. Celebrate resistance as a form of engagement. When norms are often invisible, it can also be a great learning experience to leverage the insights of those who can see.

The functioning of our society depend on explicit and implicit norms of behaviour and interaction. Let’s invest in the conversations and actions in community necessary to sustain norms and keep the use of force at bay. ‬


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