Establishing team norms

Pete’s the project lead for a new cross-organisation team. He hasn’t worked with the team members before. Time is of the essence for this project and Pete needs to get the team performing.

Here’s how we’d help Pete deal with this problem. You can use the same strategies to develop or reinvigorate your teams.

It can take time to get teams up and running. In line with Bruce Tuckman’s group development theory (1965), teams go through several stages – Forming, Storming and Norming – before they start Performing. Part of this process involves establishing team norms.

What are team norms?

Norms aren’t set in stone. They’re not formal procedures. Norms are more expectations of behaviour, the unspoken rules that everyone signs up to. Here are some common examples:

  • It’s rude to be late for a meeting.
  • It’s rude to interrupt another person who’s speaking.
  • Everyone’s contribution is valid.

These norms usually happen over time. If you’re not careful, however, two problems can arise. First, as norms are usually unspoken, some team members may not follow them. Second, some teams develop negative norms. They may end up with norms like this:

  • Some people’s opinions are more important than others.
  • Bad ideas need to be shouted down.
  • We need to find who’s to blame.

In these circumstances the likely result is misunderstanding, conflict and, ultimately, failure. Team norms can make or break relationships.

Clearly identify team norms

As time is of the essence, Pete’s team must quickly move through Forming – Norming. To help progress, we’d advise Pete to clearly identify team norms so they are no longer unspoken rules.

As they’re team norms the team should be involved in setting them. Pete should facilitate a team discussion with everyone present to do this. Write the rules down and reinforce them regularly.

Lay the groundwork first

Two crucial pieces of information will help the team establish norms. The first is information about individual communication styles within the team. What’s one person’s norm for giving feedback may not be suitable for another, for example. We’d recommend Pete’s team uses an established psychological profiling tool to understand differences. The second is ensuring everyone fully understands team objectives and roles. How something is achieved is often driven by what needs to be achieved and when.

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