One of the most frequent questions clients ask me with regard to teambuilding is, “How do we create some new — or better — team norms? And how do we make them stick?”
Having clear, appropriate, agreed-upon behavioral norms is critical for effective teams; and the only way to make them stick is to ensure that they are generated by the team members themselves, and not imposed “from above”. I usually suggest the following as a process:
1. First, evaluate the explicit or implicit norms that may already be in place. Just because your team has never sat down to identify and record team norms before doesn’t mean they don’t already exist. Ask your teammates some general questions, such as:
- What kind of communication patterns do we exhibit?
- How do we resolve problems or deal with conflict?
- Who are the “go to” people on the team, and for what sorts of issues?
- Do we give feedback to each other? How?
Asking these sorts of general questions may help you to identify specific norms that are already in place. Now you need to evaluate them. Are they effective? Are they producing the outcomes the team wants? Are they incentivizing desirable or undesirable work processes and individual behaviors?
2. Now ask yourselves, what’s missing or not working? What behaviors do we want to encourage that we aren’t encouraging now? How can we promote those behaviors? What behaviors do we want to discourage? What norms would be appropriate, given our goals?
3. A great way to tackle all this without succumbing to “group think” is to use post-it notes. Have team members write their suggested norms individually on post-it notes, one norm per note. Give them plenty of time to do this. Then have everyone post the notes on a wall, and walk around to read what others have posted. Eliminate duplicates, and then group the proposed norms by category (e.g. norms about communication, norms about power, norms about conflict, norms about office etiquette, etc.) Give each team member a certain number of dots that they can use to vote for their favorite norms. For example, if you have 35 proposed norms on the wall, each team member might get 10 dots. They can put multiple dots on one norm they believe is really important, or they can spread them out between 10 norms. Finally, collect all the data and discuss as a group. Does the voting reveal a final list of norms that you believe will best serve the mission, vision and values of the team? Or do you need to have some further discussion?
It helps a great deal to have a neutral facilitator to guide team members through this exercise. If a consultant is not an option, get someone from outside the team, perhaps from another team or department within the organization. If the team leader or manager acts as a facilitator, the risk is that team members will sacrifice candour for politics, or play guessing games about what the leader wants. Don’t forget, unless your team is new or very large, everyone will probably recognize each other’s handwriting on the post-it notes!
Another thing to keep in mind is that norms generally don’t stick unless they are based on the team’s values, and they especially won’t stick if they are incompatible with those values. For some teams, I recommend going through an exercise to identify and discuss values before you begin to work on norms. As an example, if one of your team’s values is honesty in communication, the team needs to work toward creating norms that support that value such as “We will say what we really think during meetings, as long as it’s relevant.”
Lastly, don’t forget to create some infrastructure for reinforcing your new norms. Will they be written or posted somewhere? Will they be reviewed periodically, such as at the beginning of team meetings? Will they be referred to during certain types of discussions? How will they be communicated to new team members? Don’t let your new norms collect dust in someone’s desk drawer.