Norm maintenance cost

Photo by vagawi

I play basketball weekly with a number of groups. It is my favorite sport and I enjoy the physical activity very much. However, I see this activity as a hobby and while it is important for me to compete and win, it is more important to enjoy the process. A few years ago I found myself playing with a group that was too competitive, kept arguing and shouting at each other. I ended up leaving. It was not worth the effort.

About two weeks ago I was attending one of these weekly meetings and enjoying myself. Suddenly, two of the guys started arguing. One of them used profane language and the other person got so mad he attacked him and tried to kick him. The rest of the players stopped him and nothing happened. We continued playing and everything seemed fine. I forgot about it.

About a week later we got an email from the attacker. He said our team leader (the one who organizes the game, collects the money, etc.) asked him to leave the group. He wrote that he accepts the decision and that he wished all of us luck. For a split second I asked myself – “why? Nothing happened”. But it did not take me long to recover. I hit reply and send an email to the team leader. “Well done” I wrote. “That was a brave, unconventional decision”.

It was the easy path to ignore the incident. Everybody gets angry. Nothing really happened. We stopped the person in time. This is the commonplace line of thinking. However, if you are trying to set the culture of an organization or create the norms of a group, these moments are a remarkable test of management and leadership. Sociologist Diane Vaughan calls this the normalization of deviance. When small, seemingly insignificant deviations from the norm, slowly but surely pile up until they change the organization’s culture. These deviations start in the smallest tiniest infractions of the norm and build their way up. It is a slippery slope.

Let’s say you espouse a culture of openness to ideas in your team. The next meeting somebody tells his new crazy idea and another teammate immediately reacts by making a face and saying: “this wouldn’t work”. What do you do? What is your decision at that moment? Do you stop the meeting and talk about the infraction of the norm or do you politely lead the discussion to the possibilities represented by the radical idea? I believe norm creation starts with small (and difficult) things. And it demands constant maintenance. Ignoring the remark might not lead to a disaster right away, but it sets the tone. If you maintaining the norms is not costing you something, it is a sure sign you are probably not doing it.

Are you making the tough decisions and putting your foot down in places that don’t seem to matter? What are the norms you are espousing with your team? What kind of deviance from them do you see every day? What are you doing about it? What is your norm maintenance cost?



Do other people know what you want?

Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

Just yesterday I asked “Will middle managers join the dinosaurs?” after reading Lynda Gratton’s Future of Work blog post. Today in John T. Landry gives a different approach:

…[W]e’re better off accepting command-and-control as the default for organizational life. A few companies or industries may be able to achieve true empowerment and collaboration for a while, mostly because their fast-changing markets leave them little choice. For every other organization, let’s lower our sights and focus on softening the edges of hierarchy.

Interesting. But I am more interested in a different part of the post where Landry describes an interview given by Bob Brennan CEO of Iron Mountain. Here is how Landry describes what Brennan says:

Brennan starts by saying that business is going through a transformation and top-down leadership no longer works well for companies. But he believes that too many of his managers still operate in a “command-and-control reflex.” They’re a lot like he was earlier in his career: good at holding subordinates accountable but bad at setting clear expectations. When subordinates aren’t sure what the boss really wants to accomplish, they don’t feel safe, and true delegation is impossible. Instead of acting autonomously, they hang around the boss and try to do whatever pleases him at the moment.

Fascinating. It reminded me of something I wrote long ago in a post called “What will your employees do when you leave for a vacation?”:

Imagine. You leave for a month of an overdue vacation. The catch is, it is on a deserted island, which has no way of communicating with the outside world. What will happen to your employees when you are gone? Will everything continue as usual? Will they be able to ask themselves, at every decision intersection they face – what does my manager would like to me to do, and answer that question? Correctly?

In one of the forums on Linkedin there is a current discussion about the difference between leaders and managers. While I have my own answer for this question, I found it interesting that a large part of the discussion was devoted to the question of vision and whether it is a necessary ingredient in the success of a company.  Well, maybe vision is a big word that frightens people and makes them think about historical figures or CEO of multi-million dollar companies. But actually it is much simpler. A manager needs to ask – will my employees be able to make decisions when I am not here. The decisions might be right or wrong in retrospect, but that is less important. What is important is whether these decisions align with your guidelines and attitude?

So, do the people around you know what you want even when you are not there?