Working Conversations Episode 163:

 Norms Not Working For You? Change Them


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Feeling stifled by outdated workplace norms that seem to hinder rather than facilitate productivity and collaboration?

It's time for a change.

As businesses adapt to the evolving workplace landscape, it's imperative to reassess and adjust norms that may no longer serve their intended purpose or, worse yet, prove counterproductive.

In this episode, I delve into the critical need for organizations to evaluate and potentially overhaul outdated workplace norms that have persisted, perhaps unexamined, during the tumultuous era of the pandemic.

I also offer a comprehensive guide, drawing from my expertise in organizational dynamics, to empower leaders and team members alike to recognize, question, and revise these entrenched norms effectively. Norms become deeply ingrained in organizational culture, posing significant challenges to productivity, engagement, and employee well-being when they are not the right norms.

By exploring tangible examples such as email response times and meeting schedules, we’ll shed light on the tangible impact of these norms and the potential for transformation.

Whether you're a manager tasked with leading the charge or an individual contributor seeking to catalyze positive shifts in workplace culture, this episode provides invaluable insights and practical tools to effect meaningful change.

You’ll gain actionable strategies to empower your organization to thrive in the ever-evolving workplace landscape.

Listen and catch the full episode
here or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also watch it and replay it on my YouTube channel, JanelAndersonPhD.

If you’ve found this episode helpful, spread the word! Share this podcast episode with a friend whom you might think needs to hear this. Don’t forget to leave a review and 5-star rating, it would mean the world to me.


Hello and welcome to another episode of the Working Conversations podcast where we talk all things leadership, business communication, and trends in organizational life , I’m your host, Dr. Janel Anderson.

As the world abruptly shifted to remote work at the onset of the pandemic, a new set of norms emerged almost by accident. In the absence of the traditional office environment, we found ourselves navigating a digital landscape fraught with makeshift solutions and improvised practices. While these new norms served us well in the midst of uncertainty, their origin story reveals a crucial truth: they were formed by circumstance, not by design.

Now, it's time to reassess whether these norms are truly serving us—or if they're merely relics of a bygone era. It's time to take a critical look at the norms we've unwittingly adopted and ask ourselves: are they still relevant? Are they still effective? And most importantly, are they conducive to the future we envision for our workplaces? It's a moment of reflection and recalibration—a chance to redefine our norms with intentionality and purpose.

Sometimes you have to take a close look at the present to plan for the future.  That’s what we are going to get into today.  Taking a deep look at your team or organization’s norms. I want you to uncover what normative behavior is occurring and question it.  Challenge whether your current norms are the best, most effective or if they are in need of revision.

Organizational norms are like the unwritten rules that govern how people behave within a company or any organized group. They're not necessarily official policies, but they heavily influence how things get done.

We don’t often question norms. We’re like fish, swimming about in our aquarium, completely oblivious to the fact that we are in water. Until someone takes us out of the water.  In the same way, we don’t recognize norms until we are removed from them, or when we see them being violated or broken.   

In my consulting practice, I often see norms that are not serving a team.  It’s relatively easy for me, as the outsider, to identify norms – especially ones that aren’t helpful – and point them out. It’s harder when you are living inside the fishbowl to see the norms. So I’m going to give you specific ideas today that are gonna help you see the water that you’re swimming in.

When norms are holding you back or impeding progress or efficiency, it’s time to examine them and make strides to change them.

I want to encourage you to think about the norms in your organization and assess whether they are working for you. I’ll springboard your thinking by discussing a few norms in general and a few that popped up as a result of the pandemic. It’s rather hard to see them yourself. Again, you are like the fish swimming in the water that doesn’t realize it is in water.  So keep track if you have these same norms . . . .or maybe these remind you of others that you have instead.   Then I’ll give you a step by guide for how to change norms when they’re not working.

First normal communication platforms, use email for some things slack for some things, you may pick up the phone for some things and if you're co located with coworkers, you get up out of your seat and walk over their desk and talk to them for some things. Now, when you were new in your role, you probably had to ask which platform you use for which things in fact, you probably got up and asked somebody should I send an email or should I slack them?

Should I put this on teams or does it go and share draft now after you've learned the ropes, you don't think twice about your own behavior anymore, you know which platform to use or which things but when somebody new and they make a mistake, and again, it's maybe not a poorly written policy anywhere, but when somebody uses but when somebody put something in an email that should have been a Slack message, it's totally obvious to you that normal is broken. And that's how you notice it. So you and your team and organization have norms for which communication platform you use probably takes another common norm.

Another norm that you have in stress. Now that might not be the formal dress code that is written down, say an employee handbook. That's a policy. It's written down formally. We call it a policy, but even if you don't have a formal policy, you still have norms inside of that. So maybe your formal policy is business casual, but there's that one coworker who really pushes the envelope on the casual part. They haven't violated the policy per se, but their norm is to dress down.

Now on the converse side. Again, maybe the policy is business casual, but Maryann a sales VP is always in a suit, except on Friday, when she's interested X cups and a sweater sent. Again, that's her normative behavior. And you can see it in your own behavior. You can see it across teams across organizations. So the dress code is in conflict resolution.

Does your team sweep it under the rug and turn the other cheek whether something that really needs to be surfaced to talk about or meeting a conflict norm is to discuss it straight away. If you take time to think about observed actual behaviors, you'll be able to identify your team's norm for conflict resolution, or maybe its conflict avoidance.

How about email response time? The norm is that people answer their emails right away when it hits the inbox. Well, that's normal, right? And that's what I want you to question. I know anyone can get any work done. If that is the norm. But email response time, whether it's a short response time or a longer response time is normative behavior. Now, odds are with email response time, you're able to recognize when a norm is broken. In fact, broken norms, as I mentioned before, are the easiest, despite breaking them exposes them.

Alright, now let's look at a few norms that emerged as a result of the pandemic flexible work hours, and somebody has had flexible work hours before but with the traditional office structure completely disrupted at some point in the pandemic, many organizations embraced much greater flexibility in terms of the hours that you're expected to work. Now, some places still have core hours. This may be an informal policy core hours or the 9am to 3pm. But outside of those core hours, you can be flexible with the rest of your workday.

So again, if you remember early on in a pandemic, people tell themselves juggling work alongside childcare, their kids were home schooling, and lots and lots of other responsibilities like washing our groceries, all of that led to a normalization of non traditional work hours. Now, that's great, but are those flexible work hours working? Maybe even four hours like 93 Are those working?

So we really have to examine at this point, what's working and what's serving our organization and our people. Another norm that changed as a result of pandemic was autonomy, with people working remotely that fostered a much greater sense of autonomy because people had more control over how they did their work, where when they did their work.

Now this autonomy led to a shift in organizational norms towards trusting employees to manage their own tasks and priorities, rather than having constant supervision. And of course, the days of, you know, having butts and seats were pulled politically the seats were pulled out from us. And so I told him, he became the norm. And some people who are returning to office are struggling with that autonomy. They're used to that autonomy and they feel like they don't have as much of it when they're back in the office. Another norm that came about during the pandemic was the focus on well being mental health. We're all checking in with each other, asking about family asking about health asking about well being so much more than pre pandemic.

Now, in my estimation, this is a very good point. I think this is a key if you've developed this one in your organization, where people are making it okay to not be okay, sometimes that's the mental health part of it, and normalizing discussions about mental health and just about like health in general, more like this is definitely what mental health is, is more physical health, the new norm is don't come to work when you're sick. Probably before the pandemic, there was a norm that Well, you had to be pretty sick to miss work.

Now, especially if you're co located with others, you don't come to work sick, you just don't. And again, that's normative behavior. And now for one that's not so much of a keeper, my favorite. And by favorite, I mean the one that's the worst back to back meetings. Now, was a strong meeting culture before the pandemic, definitely, but it got so much more pronounced because we couldn't just walk over someone and ask them a question. We had to, you know, resume or platform used in many places now, not all. Of course, many have a norm about popping in on somebody.

Instead, it gets scheduled in the calendar, first as a meeting and meeting after meeting after meeting, meeting, where, again, the noise event. Get up over where the others is, talk to them, Go back to your seat, shown up as a meeting on your calendar, hence, back to back meetings.

Okay, hopefully these examples got you on the scent of some of your organization's norms or your specific team's norms. Now let me give you a five step process for change norms that aren't serving you'll probably that are positive norms that you definitely keep doing those things. That's real force of them. When you keep doing them, you're probably going to find some things that you're going to want to make changes. If you are you have the authority.

If you are an individual, you can have a conversation manager or your supervisor. You can co create and discuss a broader team what a better norm might be. So I think that either individual contributors can or their managers can initiate the process. It does not have to be top down. It does not have to be management driven. If you are an individual contributor listening to this and you know of a norm that should be changed. You can even use this episode, share this episode with your manager, as a springboard for having the discussion about that specific norm. Okay, so on to the five step process.

Step one, get really clear about what the current norms are, what are the parameters? How do you know when the norm has been broken? Well, you have to see it and you have to understand it with exceeding clarity before trying to discuss it with other people and then change it. So what are the current expectations, practices, attitudes specifically around that behavior? What? How has it been instantiated as a norm? Now you might even collect data. You could conduct surveys, you could conduct interviews, or really, it's observational data that's going to give you the most insight onto into what the norms are.

If you conduct a survey or interview something like that, people might not quite get it, because how we self report is often different than how we actually behave. So you're going to want to look for some observational data. Or, you know, if it's email, you could get the email response time. You could, you know, when did the email come in? When did you answer it? What was the lag in between? That's very specific data that would substantiate whatever your claims might be about what that email norm is. Alright. So step one is to get really, really clear on what the current norms are.

Step two in is in discussion with others. You want to state your why. When you know the specific behaviors or norms that you want to change, and you can articulate why these changes are necessary, you have a much better chance at getting other people on board. Human brain is programmed to want to know why. It's the cornerstone of our readiness to change when we know why, and we believe the why, we are so much more bought in. So if you want to get buy in to changing the norm, you have got to explain it yourself, and you've got to explain the why, clearly to other people. So step two is state your why.

Step three is to involve others in the process of developing and shaping the new norms. Change is much more likely to be successful when people feel invested and involved and really bought into the process. So I'm asking for ideas. Don't just say we're changing the norm to beat this. That's really not how normative behavior comes about. Normative behavior comes about through people just acting in concert with one another and doing things in similar fashion.

Again, you can talk about it, that's fine, but if you are, you know, blanket saying it must be this way, then it's not likely to truly be a norm. Okay, so change is more likely when people feel invested in part of the process. So asking people their ideas, getting that level of participation from team members, as you consider what normative behavior is going to work better is going to be critical. So this is also going to foster a certain sense of ownership and accountability for implementing the new normative behavior. And besides, the intelligence of a group is typically better than the intelligence of one single person. So you're going to get a broader set of ideas, and probably some better ideas when you involve the larger group. Okay, so step three, involve others in the process.

Step four, take it on as an experiment. Now, again, as I mentioned before, norms develop on their own when you are intentionally guiding them and trying to implement new ones, sometimes it will work and sometimes it won't. So taking it on as an experiment acknowledges that, and also taking it on as an experiment acknowledges that you might not get it right the first time or the second time. It might need a series of tweaks and adjustments, and that's okay.

It also makes it a little bit less threatening when you're talking with somebody who's more averse to change. If you say we're taking this on as an experiment, it might work. It might not work, you know. Can, you know, let's play along. Then it takes some of that undue pressure to change off, or it also takes the pressure to get it right off the table as well. So step four is to take it on as an experiment.

Step five, evaluate and adjust as needed. Again, because we were taking it on as an experiment, we don't necessarily have to feel like we were going to get it right the first time, and let's not get too attached to it either, because it might it might seem like a great idea on paper, but then once we try it, to implement it, it doesn't work so or it doesn't work as expected.

So step five, we're going to evaluate and make those adjustments. Now we might also be collecting some data here to evaluate against, and that could be, are we still, you know, are we still serving our customers as well as we had hoped? Are we, whether they be internal or external customers, are we still productive? Are we more productive? Less productive?

And so gathering some data can really help in this evaluation process. And then again, you're going to make some adjustments and tweaks and fine tuning and keep trying if it isn't really a much better improvement. Okay, so let me give you an example.

Let's say you have identified that your team is hyper, hyper responsive on email, like you are getting back to people within minutes and that well, you know, if you've heard me talk about things like that before, you probably have heard me say not to do that because it is disruptive to the rest of your work day, and you're not getting your time to do focus work at time when you need extended periods of concentration so that you can really think through something and really invest in the work that you're doing and be present to just the work and not every little disruption that comes along.

So in terms of step one, collect some data, find out what the actual response time is. I mean, maybe it's just widely known in your team that you are hyper responsive to emails, so maybe you don't need to collect the data there. If everybody is bought into the idea that, yes, that is the normative behavior, then data collection may not be necessary.

Step two, you're going to state the why. You want to remind your colleagues that there's no focus time when we're so highly responsive on our email if we're in email and in our inbox all day long, we are not getting those big chunks of time for our brain to do its best work on some of our other project based work and things that require deep thinking. So you might share some of the neuroscience that backs us up. My episode on why you can't multitask is a really good place to start, and we'll link that one up in the show notes, in case you want to go grab that episode.

And if you haven't heard that is a fan favorite, lots of people have written and told me how much they like the episode on how the human brain cannot multitask. So step two state your why? So explain to people that they are not getting their focus work done, and they are not doing their brain any favors by being an email all day long.

All right, so then step three, now we're going to start to think about involving other people in what might be a better norm in terms of our response time. So brainstorm about acceptable turnaround time on emails. Does it matter if it's an external stakeholder or customer versus pitch your ideas, but don't get too attached to your ideas, as I was saying before, also listen to other people's ideas. Let this be a real, free, firm, free, loyal. We can brainstorm and innovate and ideate about what might work. So that was step three, involve other people.

Then step four, experiment. Give it a time frame. Let's say maybe a week. So maybe you say, okay, instead of being an email all day long, how about we all just check our email at the top of the hour, as our schedules permit, or once an hour, whatever time of the hour is the best. I know meetings often start at the top of the hour. So that might not be the best time, but choose a time and again. Maybe you're going to try the norm of once an hour. If people have been in their inboxes all day long every day, then going to once an hour may be a sufficient change for people to get some productivity in their day.

For others, maybe you could stretch that to two hours and continue to push the limit on that one but for your first round experiment, like you might say, Let's try for this first week, everybody, just check your email once an hour. That should be sufficient, and if you have a highly urgent issue, then we pick up the phone, or then we jump into a teams, call or then we, you know, text each other, something like that, but create an experiment around it, give it a time frame again, I think a week is a good one on something like this.

And then step five, check in and see how it's working and make some fine tune adjustments. So Does anything need to be changed? Are balls getting dropped. Do we have higher productivity? Are we creating more focus time for getting good work done? Again? You might even collect some data as part of that evaluation, and I would imagine, if you did this experiment, you would find people are more productive. They're getting more focused time and getting more focused work done. But you'd also want to benchmark that against, you know, customer satisfaction is and that might not be something that you can assess in one week's time frame.

That might be a longer period of time that you're looking at, but like, let's say you got no complaints. You changed it to just once an hour instead of all day long every day, and there were no complaints people, probably by and large, didn't even notice, because they weren't expecting a response as quickly as you usually give them a response. Now, by following these steps and approaching the change process strategically and empathetically, you can successfully influence and shape the normative behavior within your team or your organization.

So I'll give you those five steps again, really fast. Number one, get really clear on what the current norms are. Number two, state your why. Number three, involve others in the process. Number four, take it on as an experiment. And number five, evaluate and adjust as needed.

Now, again, if you are a manager, you can initiate this. If you are an individual contributor, if you are an individual contributor, you can talk to your manager about this and spark the conversation with them and get some other people involved. You don't have to wait for somebody else to recognize that a norm needs to be changed and remember norms heavily influence how things get done in organizations and in teams. Organizational norms, Team norms that can encompass a wide range of behaviors and practices. This is what collectively defines the culture of a workplace or a team.

So understanding and navigating these norms is essential, both for individual success and for the organizational outcomes you're striving for. So get out there and challenge yourself and your team to evaluate your norms and upgrade the ones that aren't working to something that suits you better and paves the way for the future.

Remember, the future of work is not only about technology, it's about the values we uphold, the communities we build, and the sustainable growth we strive for. We need to keep exploring, keep innovating and keep envisioning the remarkable possibilities that Iies ahead.

And as always, stay curious, stay informed and stay ahead of the curve.

Tune in next week for another insightful exploration of the trends that are shaping our professional world. Now, hey, if you enjoy listening to these episodes even half as much as I enjoy making them, then I need to ask for a favor. Please give the podcast a five star rating and leave a review in your podcast platform of choice. It helps other listeners find me and believe me when I say I do not want to be kept anyone's secret until next time my friends, be well.

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