Our meetings were chaotic and unproductive as some experts got into intense debates without really listening to each other while some fell into silence.
I am embarrassed to say I participated in the mess. When we finally stopped to actually apply our team expertise to ourselves, we transformed and had great results. We did not eliminate all problems but we managed them much better.
What helped most in turning this team of experts around?
It became clear to us that we had overlooked defining and using team norms. Norms are ground rules or guidelines for how members communicate and behave with each other—like really listening to each other, exploring ideas instead of debating them, giving feedback without blaming, assuring everyone’s involvement, and being clear about how decisions will be made.
Even if, like my experts, team members bring a lot of prior experience with norms, every team has to create them yet again. Norms gain their power through development in conversation.
Why are team guidelines about communication and behavior so important?
Team which do not define and use norms are at higher risk for falling into mediocre performance or failure. In a study of 120 senior leadership teams, only 21% were high performing and the factor most strongly associated with high performance was clarity and use of norms—not brilliance in things like strategy, quality, or efficiency. (1)
Defining and using norms leads to better communication, problem solving, and conflict resolution all of which lead to both better results and higher quality work relationships. The latter enhances sustainability and team resilience.
Why is it so easy to overlook establishing adequate team norms?
- Norms seem so basic and simple.
- Teams with problems can appear to be doing just fine.
- Developing and using team norms is like learning a new language.
For example, compare “We need to feel safe.” to “When someone offers an idea we will always check understanding to make sure they feel heard.” Or, “When we give feedback we will avoid negative labels and be specific about the situation and behaviors we have observed. We will own observations as perceptions and not The Truth and check out each other’s perceptions.”
- Ongoing feedback is required for making progress and it is uncomfortable.
Feedback is facilitated by making explicitly clear that it is not about “bad behavior.” Getting off track from norms can happen to anyone at any time no matter how long a team has worked together. Feedback is about helping people be at their best. Leaders can help greatly by modeling feedback including inviting it about themselves.
- Changing habits of behavior is hard.
Transform team problems into learning and creativity.
Strong evidence links quality of team experience to better results, resilience, and sustainability. Norms are the rudder to maintain the desired team experience. I am humbled by how easy it is, even for experts, to neglect norms. By remembering this aspect of our humanness, I am better at helping myself and others transform team problems into learning and creativity.
Tool to guide creation of team norms
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1. Wageman, Ruth et al Senior Leadership Teams Harvard Business Review Press 2008.