One of a manager's most difficult activities occurs when his or her subordinates know exactly what behavior is expected of them, fully understand the reasons behind that expectation, and nevertheless deliberately do something else. The chances are that the manager has to deal with a group norm.

A quick search of Internet resources will produce many thousands of links to scholarly discussions of group norms and associated phenomena, but busy managers may not be interested in such academic pursuits. They just want a simple method of dealing with a group of employees who routinely and knowingly take shortcuts, skip contingency planning, ignore PPE requirements, or otherwise deliberately violate safety rules.

One method of dealing with group norm problems is to hold a norm-changing meeting. This method does not require advanced education in the human behavior sciences, but it does require the manager to understand a few basic points about how people react when their way of doing things is challenged.

This paper presents a step-by-step example of a typical norm-changing meeting. People seeking an in-depth understanding will want to research the subject further, but the information given here should be enough for an average manager to utilize the methodology.

The author has had occasion to apply this technique by facilitating norm-changing meetings in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia and has so far found it applicable in all cultures.

What is a Group Norm?

Suppose a company has a policy requiring supervisors to personally inspect a job site before issuing a work permit. There are obvious remedies if only one supervisor ignores the requirement, but the situation changes if there are many supervisors and all of them ignore the rule whenever possible, giving various excuses. A single supervisor could be re-assigned or disciplined for rules violations, but a manager's options shrink rapidly when faced with routine misbehavior of an entire group. The manager must deal with a Group Norm, an unwritten, unarticulated, and often unrecognized behavior standard that the group members consider normal.

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