Collaboration and team work are essential to the success of a business. Establishing team norms–a set of unwritten rules that guide behavior – can boost team efficiency. Even Google’s project on “What makes a team successful (or not)” tied a team’s success to norms and not just data and brains. Common team norms relate to decisions, project management, dealing with conflict, group discussions and meetings. For instance, norms for team meetings would include how they should be structured, who will lead the meeting, how to encourage participation, who will keep the minutes, and how meeting transcription will be done. To build a successful team, a team leader needs to:
- Create and agree upon a set of group norms
- Establish steps to implement those norms in day-to-day work activities
Group norms are a set of agreements about how team members will work with each other and how the group will function as a whole. By providing clarity of purpose and roles, these agreed-upon guidelines on behavior will help improve the collective performance of the team.
Team norms can be developed in three ways: from past experience with a successful team, letting norms develop naturally, or creating the norms based on what you want to see. Identifying successful norms based on past experience is a feasible strategy. For instance, Google’s research found that teams that performed well on one project usually did so well on all others as well. The reverse was also true, that is, those that failed at one thing seemed to fail at everything. This led the researchers to conclude that what set the “good” teams apart from the dysfunctional groups was how group members treated one another. As reported in a New York Times article, the researchers found that, “The right norms, in other words, could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if, individually, all the members were exceptionally bright”.
Here are the steps involved in developing team norms:
- Get all team members to assemble in one place and ask each person to suggest a norm or norms and make a list of these. You can also divide the team into groups of three or four people and get each group to brainstorm their own list of guidelines. This strategy is ideal for team members who don’t know each other well.
- Once you have the list of suggestions, you need to eliminate redundant ideas and take a collective decision on which norms you want to retain as a group. The abstract list of norms needs to be turned into measurable behaviors.
- It would be a good idea to prioritize your norms and practice them regularly.
- To ensure adherence, create a plan for following through on each norm by identifying responsibilities and timelines.
- New norms can be added over time if necessary.
Examples of norms include:
- Our meetings will begin and end on time
- We will treat each other with dignity and respect
- Team members will speak respectfully to each other
- We will support each other
- We will not interrupt each other and listen when someone is speaking
- We will make sure everyone participates in a meeting
- We will respect our facilitator’s efforts to moderate discussions
- Minutes will be recorded at each meeting
Refining and defining the guidelines is an important part of the norm development process. There may be contradictions as to what people want and as a result, suggested guidelines may reflect individual preferences. In that case, it would be prudent to have a norm that says, “Let’s respect each other’s unique perspectives and preferences.”
Once you have developed a set of norms, you need to make sure they are not violated. Senior executives should set the example and inspire others to follow them. Posting the finalized list of norms in work areas would serves as a reminder during the course of the project. Even then, you may find that people tend to forget or unintentionally violate them. To develop mutual accountability, discuss different situations such as how members will be held accountable if norms are not followed and how accountability can be promoted. For instance, if someone perpetually arrives late at meetings, he or she could be asked to pay a fine.
It’s also important to review the norms from time to time so that they reflect what’s important to team members at each phase of the project. This will allow you to make modifications based on valid concerns and grievances.
By influencing team behavior, norms can have a far reaching impact on team performance. Setting norms gives people a clear idea about their responsibilities, improves confidence, builds trust and improves cohesiveness and productivity.