Team norms are both a risk and an opportunity

3 minutes read


Every team has rules and norms of conducts.  Even if unintended, groups always give rise to routinized behaviors as team members settle into what works for them.

Team norms are both a risk and an opportunity. They are risky because if you don’t approach them proactively they may become harmful to team performance. Leads aren’t getting followed up. Information doesn’t get shared. The CRM tool isn’t maintained. However, norms are also an opportunity because such rules are largely at the team’s disposal and therefore fall directly in a team’s scope of action. Leaders (in the sense of shared leadership) can and should decide to do something about it.

That’s the reason why high-performing teams take a proactive approach towards rules and behaviors

They don’t leave it to chance, but make an effort to build behavioral patterns that make their walk true to their talk. They define clear behavioral boundaries for themselves, like “must do” and “must not do” rules. They keep an eye on emergent patterns of behavior in between those boundaries and they make sense of the implications of those behaviors for their team performance. A client of mine recently lamented the decay of his former employer’s corporate culture, with the “average director going home an hour early these days” compared to a few years ago. To be fair, a simple behavioral norm won’t fix that particular case, but implicit, self-emerged norms carry implications and, again, leaders should be wary of them.


Actively managing team rules should relate to purpose and goals

It strengthens team rules if there is a clear connection to purpose and goals. The key purpose of flight crews is safety first – and this purpose will be a clear and compelling guidance for some “must do” and “must never do” behaviors by crew members.

Sometimes team norms are imported by its members, especially in case of homogenous groups with a shared background in terms of education or work experience.

But it comes down to leaders to proactively address team norms as a key condition of team performance. And time matters. Especially the earliest stages of a team life cycle – and ‘first meetings’ in particular, – pose an opportunity to start establishing norms; an opportunity that doesn’t come back.

Check out our Team Kit section on Rules and Behaviors, including a tool to define core behavioral boundaries for high-performing teams.