How we behave in both personal and professional situations is usually governed by a set of unwritten rules, known as 'social norms'.
In personal situations, norms include saying 'please' and 'thank you', looking the other person in the eye when talking to them, and not interrupting them when they speak. We learn these norms from a young age and tend to subconsciously adhere to them over the course of our lives.
Now while these norms also apply to professional settings, they're not the only norms that need to be adhered to. In fact, for teams to work well together, there will be specific behaviors that must be agreed on, so that team members know what is expected of them, and what they can expect from one another.
They also help guide decision making, and solve problems.
But how do teams decide on these norms? And how do they embed these team behaviors into their day-to-day work to the point that they become a habit?
In this article, we'll explore team norms in more detail, explain the link between team behaviors and team performance, and provide examples of team norms in the workplace.
What are team norms?
Harvard Business Review defines team norms as:
“A set of agreements about how [team] members will work with each other and how the group will work overall. These agreed-upon behaviors allow the team to increase its collective [team] performance through healthy debate and clarity of purpose and roles.”
Team norms are guidelines, set by the team, for how the team members will interact, communicate and behave, for example in meetings.
They lead to more effective decision making, they provide clear expectations for how all team members interact and perform in the team, and they enable the effective onboarding of new team members.
Team norms are important because they make the expected behaviors abundantly clear for all individuals in a team, in turn preventing conflicts and misunderstandings.
The link between team behaviors and team performance
In a 2006 study, Van den Bossche explored how teams build shared beliefs in a collaborative learning environment, and found that team learning improves the perceived performance of a team.
This was supported by research by van Emmerik et al, which showed team learning behavior to be positively associated with the team’s efficacy.
Essentially, agreeing on a set of team behaviors or "norms" provides healthy boundaries for team relationships, and formally defining these expected behaviors can have positive benefits for the whole team.
But it's not just in-person teams whose performance improves with clearly defined norms though. In fact, team norms are also essential for virtual or hybrid teams.
Because when everyone works remotely, it can take longer to establish trust.
And when trust is high, overall project performance, team satisfaction, effectiveness, and team cohesion all improve.
An example of team norms in the workplace
So, what do team norms look like in the workplace? In other words, what are the rules that are often in place to govern teams?
Well below, we've included a list of (non-exhaustive) suggestions:
- Treat one another with dignity and respect
- Actively listen
- Be open minded with all suggestions
- Don’t play games—avoid office politics
- Always have an advanced agenda for a meeting
- Encourage constructive silence
- Practice and develop self awareness
- Celebrate accomplishments
- No meetings on Fridays after 12 noon
- Start meetings on time
- Don’t complain without offering at least two solutions
How to establish team norms
Before we get into how to establish team norms, let’s start by just clarifying that team norms don’t have to be dry or formal. What’s most important is ensuring that everyone on the team has a say in their creation.
Which means that the whole team should contribute and agree on the list.
In other words, managers shouldn’t impose top down behaviors, at least not if you want them to stick.
An exercise for establishing team norms
Encourage your managers to try this exercise with their team:
1. Have each team member think of the WORST team they've ever been a part of, whether that be in the workplace, as a volunteer, or even on a sports team. The only requirement is that it's a team where the members depended on one another.
2. Ask each team member to write down what made that team so awful. Have them be as specific as they can.
3. Ask each team member to share their experiences with the rest of the team.
4. Following this, have each team member think of the BEST team they've ever been a part of.
5. Ask them to write down what made that team so great, again being as specific as possible.
6. Take it in turns to share their experiences.
7. Get the team together and have them discuss as a group what makes a good team experience, and what makes a bad one.
8. Ask the team to draw up a list of behaviors and team norms that would help their own team succeed. Have them think about recent challenges at work, or challenges they foresee arising in the future.
9. Have someone keep track of the suggestions on a piece of paper for all team members to see. Alternatively, you may choose to use software to facilitate this exercise.
10. As a team, rank the suggestions from the most pertinent to the least. Have team members flag any suggestions they think they might struggle with, even if they can't identify a solution right now.
11. Have the team discuss, as a group, how to respond to a team member who doesn't follow the agreed norms. What will be the protocol for handling this situation?
12. Transfer the list of norms and behaviors into a document that every team member has access to. Even better, print it out and post prominently, proudly, for all to see.
13. Regularly review the agreed team norms. Test, adjust and remove any that don't work. You should also be reviewing these norms when a new starter joins the team.
Embed team behaviors into day-to-day practice
To make it easy to embed norms, they need to be specific. Behaviors that aren’t specific enough are a lot harder to put into practice.
Once teams have agreed on team behaviors, managers need to encourage the team to implement them in day to day practice to help them come alive, and start forming habits.
One easy way to do this is to make the norms visual. This serves as a reminder to the rest of the team, but also to make other teams aware of them:
- Print them out
- Stick them on the wall or pin to a notice board
- Set them as your laptop screensaver
- Design mugs with one team behavior on each of one
- Spell out an acronym if it fits
Draw specific actions from your behaviors
Have managers regularly reflect on these agreed norms with their team, and discuss next steps in order to close gaps between the norms they currently have and the reality of how things are done.
Again, this will be a lot easier if the agreed norms are clear and specific. For example:
- How will the manager conduct reviews to be in line with their team behaviors?
- Do teams need a new chat software (or another type of asynchronous communication) to align their communications with their behaviors?
Having agreed upon behaviors is also important for ensuring accountability within teams.
Don't confuse team norms with organizational norms
Have managers ensure team behaviors are tangible and targeted towards the whole team. One common mistake is to confuse team behaviors with organizational norms or values. While the two should align, team norms are those behaviors that the team has chosen and agreed to commit to, as a team.
Make sure managers know to have fun with team norms and that they should use language that the team can relate to, rather than stuffy corporate talk:
- Instead of saying ‘We’re open and honest’, try ‘We say what we think’
- ‘Do not piss on someone’s idea without offering one better.’
- ‘We keep things super simple.’
Writing team norms how the team talks will make them more realistic and implementable, and less like a manifesto.
Check in on team norms
Once teams have established team behaviors, it is important to review them from time to time as a team. Give this template to managers to guide their discussion:
- Which of our team behaviors are we living up to most?
- Which of our team behaviors are we not living up to?
- What could we do to live our team behaviors more?
- Are our current team behaviors fit for purpose, based on this discussion?
- When will we next review our team behaviors?
This exercise could even be done as part of a team reflection.
Consider virtual team norms
Just because a team operates remotely, doesn’t make them immune to team norms. If anything, because team members are separated, team norms are even more important.
Getting clarity on virtual team norms early on can therefore be the difference between a high performing team, and an average one.
It's also important to ensure that every remote team member understands the importance of the team norms and why they’re going to be of use. When arranging the team norms creation meeting, say something like: ‘as we all work remotely, it’s important we clarify how we’re going to work together to be most effective’. In fact, this is crucial for ensuring success in remote and hybrid teams.
Carry out the above norm creation exercise for the virtual team. Or ask each team member to propose two team norms. The team then discusses the suggestions, but adopts only the most relevant norms.
Final thoughts on establishing team norms in the workplace
While team managers can contribute ideas and suggestions for team norms, the best norms, the ones with the most value, are based on positive intent and trust in the process. They’re built from the bottom up with buy-in from all team members.
When teams define their norms, their members take an active step toward working more successfully together.
In order to maximize on team norms, teams need to shift away from intent, and towards implementing their intentions. And that starts with practicing the habits of high performing teams everyday.
But norms aren’t integrated into the everyday workflow until they become habits, which is where Saberr fits in. Our platform is designed to support the habits of great teams. Oh, and provide you with interactive team exercises, such as establishing these norms.
To find out more about how Saberr can help you develop the team habits that lead to high performance, schedule a time to be shown around the software.