Creating Team Norms


In their eagerness to embark on a new project, project teams sometimes overlook an essential aspect of their effort—building a relationship among team members, which will foster not just a successful project outcome, but also a satisfying work experience. Investing in relationship building is invariably less costly and time-consuming than recovering from the divisiveness and conflict that may result from its absence. And that's where team norms come in.

Team norms concern how team members will interact, communicate, and conduct themselves as members of the team. Norms express intentions; they help team members agree on how they'd like to get along before situations emerge that might otherwise prevent them from getting along. Furthermore, norms provide a context for discussing grievances about team behavior, thereby preventing tensions from mounting and frustrations from festering. Norm setting gives team members an opportunity to express what's important to them and to learn what's important to their teammates.

Sample Norms
Here are some of the norms that project teams have found helpful:

  • Listen to what others are saying
  • Strive to understand each other's perspectives, rather than jumping to conclusions
  • Try to resolve problems without blaming
  • Send an acknowledgement in response to important email messages
  • Respect "do not disturb" signs on people's cubicles
  • When you've made a commitment you can't keep, let the other party know as soon as possible
  • If you don't understand something, ask for clarification
  • If you see a problem that others haven't noticed, bring it to someone's attention
  • Treat clients' issues and concerns as valid even if you don't agree with them
  • If you think team members have a conflicting understanding of a project issue, bring it to their attention
  • Focus on the positive: what's working well, not on what's going wrong

In addition to creating general norms such as these, many teams find it helpful to establish norms for specific events, such as information-gathering sessions and status meetings. Starting and ending on time is a common norm for meetings. Virtual teams may favor norms which ensure that information is communicated in a usable format and to the appropriate individuals. Norms that help clarify information and avoid misinterpretations can be particularly important to teams that span national or cultural boundaries.

Norms work best when team members create their own. Using a pre-existing list may make team members feel that the norms have been foisted on them rather than selected by them. Even if team members agree with every norm on a pre-existing list, they are more likely to own and respect norms they've created themselves.

Ways to Create Norms
Generally, norm setting is led by a facilitator, preferably someone who is objective and doesn't have a stake in the resulting list. Gathering an initial set of norms is a flexible process that a team can adapt to its size and preferences. For example, team members who are located near each other—or are able to get together for a project kickoff—might use one of these methods to create a starter list for discussion:

  • Team members sit in a circle. Each person in turn describes a norm that the facilitator posts on a flip chart, going around the circle until no one has any others to suggest. Anyone who doesn't have a norm to offer can simply pass. This method works well when team members already know each other and feel comfortable voicing their views.
  • The team divides into three or four people per group. Each group brainstorms and creates their own list of norms. They then gather as a full team. As they report, the facilitator posts each norm, going from one group to the next. This method is effective with team members who don't yet know each other well, since it gives them a chance to interact in small groups, yet doesn't require anyone identify their norms in front of the whole team.

Refining the Norms
No list of norms is complete until the full team has discussed them and agreed to them. In my experience, the very process of discussing them has considerable relationship-strengthening value. Often, team members seek clarification or raise potential concerns about one or another norm. For example, someone might reasonably ask how someone can respect a "do not disturb" sign on a teammate's cubicle and still get the person's attention for an important matter. The resulting discussion helps team members decide how they want to handle familiar everyday situations that, if not addressed, can lead to frustration and resentment.

As they further review the list, team members may notice apparent contradictions among norms. For example, in a team that had set norms for a major project, one person said that when he appeared upset, he wanted others to be forthcoming and offer help. Upon hearing this, another person quickly responded that when she was upset, she preferred to be left alone, and if she needed help, she'd ask for it. In effect, one person was saying, "Help me even if I haven't asked for help," while the other was saying, "Don't help me unless I've explicitly asked for it."

The discussion that followed helped people appreciate that asking others what they prefer in a given situation is better than assuming that "you want what I would want in the same situation." After this team noticed that several of their posted norms reflected individual preferences, they added a final norm that said, "Let's respect each other's unique perspectives and preferences."

Honoring the Norms
Posting the finalized list of norms in project work areas creates a handy reminder as the project proceeds. Of course, even with the norms readily visible, people sometimes forget or unintentionally violate them. But the very process of having agreed to abide by them enables team members to remind each other of the behavior they'd like to strive towards. Out of such efforts, trust grows and the team strengthens.

Periodically reviewing the norms in team meetings enables team members to raise concerns, address grievances, and make adjustments as the project proceeds. Norms are not static; they represent the wishes and preferences of a team at a point in time. The list can be revised at any time to reflect what's important to team members at that stage of the project.

Certainly, a team that operates from a set of norms won't avoid conflict, but conflict that does arise is more likely to be discussed than suppressed, and more likely to be amicably resolved. The result is a more satisfying team experience for all participants, which usually generates a higher quality product.

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