What Are Norms and Why Do We Need Them?
Linda Belans EdD.
Norms are community agreements. They reflect what we value. Whether derived by decision or default, norms become part of an organization’s DNA. It makes sense to actively and intentionally identify how we want to treat and interact with each other, how we want to manifest a fulfilling and mindful approach to work and life, and be fully present to possibilities. Intentional norms bring out the best in us and ultimately create an environment that fosters creativity, rich thinking, and a collaborative culture, anchored in a sense of belonging.
How do we develop group norms and how do we get everyone on the same norms page? It’s a question rooted in transformation, one that drives the way we interact. For example, a transformation we seek is a commitment to being fully present in meetings because we understand this creates conditions to listen, reflect, and respond. To foster this interaction, we agree to limit electronic media during meetings so that colleagues can look at each other when they’re speaking in order to feel seen and heard, and to observe spoken and unspoken language.
To develop norms together, we start with the assumption that people want to live and work in nourishing environments where they feel valued, and their voices can be heard – where we can agree and disagree, and speak our truth respectfully, without penalty. Where we can make equity demands without dismantling trust. We can begin our norms discussion with our team or group by acknowledging this, then we can ask:
How do we want to be present together, and in how we interact with each other?
What expectations do we have of each other during meetings and other interactions?
What few things do we need to agree on to foster authentic conversations anchored in equity, to make sure that we’re all paying attention, and are respectful of each other’s ideas and styles so that we can move the conversation forward?
For example, can we agree that we will listen well and not interrupt? That to remain present, we will be low-tech? And so on.
This can be a rich discussion during which the team’s or group's values emerge and become the focal point. It’s important that everyone feels comfortable with the norms they collectively create. Norms are dynamic and can be altered and added to along the way.
The National Equity Project developed a user-friendly set of transformational norms:
Show up (or choose to be present).
Pay Attention (to heart and meaning).
Tell the Truth (without blame or judgment)
Be Open to Outcome (not attached to outcome because it can change).
A transformational end in mind we strive for is that at the end of a meeting or interaction, colleagues feel heard and seen, and are energized to continue working toward commonly shared goals. This can happen when there are intentional norms. Here are more examples of norms, noting that any State of Being or 7 EQ can become a norm.
Everyone has a piece of the truth
See the higher self
We are all accountable to the norms
Once you have agreed on your norms, it’s wise to begin meetings with members offering examples of what each norm might look like in action.
At a meeting midpoint, ask for a quick check-in to determine if the team is living the norms, cite a couple of specific examples of how, and what they might need to adjust.
Repeat the process at the end of each meeting to make sure the team is actively honoring and adjusting. Norms are fluid and can change as the need arises.
As time progresses and the team has internalized the norms, these steps can be brief.
The process of developing norms and living by them leads us through the arduous process of self-discovery and self-actualization as we become more authentic and daring. When meetings are sacred spaces, particularly when the organization’s work is people-centered, it becomes possible to intentionally live its mission and values, and advance its collective vision.