Creating Team Norms


In their eagerness to embark on a new project, project teams sometimes overlook an essential aspect of their effort—building a relationship among team members, which will foster not just a successful project outcome, but also a satisfying work experience. Investing in relationship building is invariably less costly and time-consuming than recovering from the divisiveness and conflict that may result from its absence. And that's where team norms come in.

Team norms concern how team members will interact, communicate, and conduct themselves as members of the team. Norms express intentions; they help team members agree on how they'd like to get along before situations emerge that might otherwise prevent them from getting along. Furthermore, norms provide a context for discussing grievances about team behavior, thereby preventing tensions from mounting and frustrations from festering. Norm setting gives team members an opportunity to express what's important to them and to learn what's important to their teammates.

Sample Norms
Here are some of the norms that project teams have found helpful:

  • Listen to what others are saying
  • Strive to understand each other's perspectives, rather than jumping to conclusions
  • Try to resolve problems without blaming
  • Send an acknowledgement in response to important email messages
  • Respect "do not disturb" signs on people's cubicles
  • When you've made a commitment you can't keep, let the other party know as soon as possible
  • If you don't understand something, ask for clarification
  • If you see a problem that others haven't noticed, bring it to someone's attention
  • Treat clients' issues and concerns as valid even if you don't agree with them
  • If you think team members have a conflicting understanding of a project issue, bring it to their attention
  • Focus on the positive: what's working well, not on what's going wrong

In addition to creating general norms such as these, many teams find it helpful to establish norms for specific events, such as information-gathering sessions and status meetings. Starting and ending on time is a common norm for meetings. Virtual teams may favor norms which ensure that information is communicated in a usable format and to the appropriate individuals. Norms that help clarify information and avoid misinterpretations can be particularly important to teams that span national or cultural boundaries.

Norms work best when team members create their own. Using a pre-existing list may make team members feel that the norms have been foisted on them rather than selected by them. Even if team members agree with every norm on a pre-existing list, they are more likely to own and respect norms they've created themselves.

Ways to Create Norms
Generally, norm setting is led by a facilitator, preferably someone who is objective and doesn't have a stake in the resulting list. Gathering an initial set of norms is a flexible process that a team can adapt to its size and preferences. For example, team members who are located near each other—or are able to get together for a project kickoff—might use one of these methods to create a starter list for discussion:

  • Team members sit in a circle. Each person in turn describes a norm that the facilitator posts on a flip chart, going around the circle until no one has any others to suggest. Anyone who doesn't have a norm to offer can simply pass. This method works well when team members already know each other and feel comfortable voicing their views.
  • The team divides into three or four people per group. Each group brainstorms and creates their own list of norms. They then gather as a full team. As they report, the facilitator posts each norm, going from one group to the next. This method is effective with team members who don't yet know each other well, since it gives them a chance to interact in small groups, yet doesn't require anyone identify their norms in front of the whole team.

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