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?