Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Awesome is Better Than Normal

A basic theory around the idea of advance bribery and overall transactional communication is to take advantage of human norms and expectations. A “norm” is defined as “A rule or authoritative standard; a model; a type” by Dictionary.com. Think for a minute about standing in an elevator. You’re there, in an elevator. Which way are you facing? The norm is to face the door. It’s a small space, and the norm developed so strangers in a tight confine would not feel uncomfortable so close together.

In the business world, there are many norms like the elevator example. Norms differ per place of business and the group at the business within which you work. As a manager, trying to make a difference to the culture means understanding those norms.

Think about the elevator example. If you didn’t know that most people face forward, and you entered a crowded elevator and faced the people, instead of the doors, statistically speaking you are currently making a bad impression on some of the people in the elevator, most likely the ones closest to you who no longer have the illusion of personal space because you’re staring right at them. If this is one of the first times you’ve met them, you have a long, rocky road of changing the opinion formed while you’re violating this norm.

Now think about a team that you might work with. It may be the norm in the team that every shouts over everyone else. Waiting for your turn may never come, and be seen as a sign of weakness. This may be a norm you want to change, but if you don’t know about it until several meetings, you’ve already established a pattern of appearing weak. Trying to change the framework—making sure everyone gets a time to speak—would be perceived as stemming from your weakness in the situation where the norm is present, rather than in an enlightened view that everyone would be happier if they could speak their mind without fear of interruption.

Can you always know the norms before you screw up? No. But when you start at a new place, interact with people you’ve never interacted with before, or try to grow communication or interaction with strangers, be aware that norms—subtle and not-so-subtle—are there and need to be looked for.

Once you’ve got a feel of the norms, you can then look at ways of changing them if they are not producing the effect you would like to produce. Alternately, you can look at ways to encourage them if they are producing what you’d like to see.

In the previous example, you may screw up and not talk the first few shouting matches where talking over each other is the norm. But once you figure out what is going on, you can make changes to your behavior—such as joining the throng of shouting voices—a few times before you attempt to change overall behavior. Is it healthy to yell at each other? No. Is it a good idea to come in and make changes without seeming to try to understand how people do their work currently? No.

Some people may see the shouting and think they understand immediately. Some people even do grasp things that quickly. However, the people who have been following the norm for some time cannot comprehend how someone who just entered the situation could understand it so quickly. Some people may feel that you feel you need to do something just because you’re new, and a manager, and in need of proving yourself.

Now, they’re probably not wrong about the proving yourself part. But the application of proving yourself is probably different than what they expect. You need to, at least for a week or two, obey and observe the norms of the group. Try to understand what they get out of following those norms and the behaviors they follow. Instead of just looking at things as “what can I change to make it better” you need to look at them, as well, as, “what are they getting out of doing things this way?”

It seems pretty fundamental, but looking at our example of the people shouting at each other in meetings as a norm, you’re not going to immediately grasp that some people in the group might feel that it produces a good environment for the challenging and developing of new ideas. Or that some people really don’t like to talk in front of groups, and everyone shouting and considering them weak is a small price to pay to doodle or check email during a meeting. Finally, some of the people in the meeting like to feel important, and expressing themselves through this norm allows them to feel that way.

Now that you’ve engaged in the exercise, and come to these conclusions, changing the norm is a matter of providing the good parts of the norm without the norm itself. Schedule shouting matches. Do not invite the people who do not like to shout. Do not attend, nor allow others in a position of authority to attend, these meetings. This will allow those who feel that they get the best ideas out of the situation to continue doing so. It also looks to the rest of the team that you’re not breaking up their norm completely. Finally, it has the added benefit of making the meetings less interesting to the people who were fighting for the sake of fighting—there is no one there to impress in a position of power.

Regular group meetings should next be altered. Explain that, because you have a place to get out controversial ideas, that group meetings are now a place of collaboration. Ask the team to come up with goals for their “new” group meeting. Inject some goals as “suggestions” of your own. Suggestions like a round robin approach to answering questions, where people can say “pass” if they haven’t got anything to add. Going around the table will restrict the amount of time that grandstanders (who were doing this for attention) can grandstand, and encourage people who were otherwise tuned out to speak up. At the very least, they have to pay attention to what they’re actively passing on commenting about.

Finally, meet with the people outside the meetings. The people who like attention, set aside specific time to talk to. Keep their conversations constructive about their work. Praise them as appropriate. Do not use these conversations for negative interactions (you can handle that in a one on one when you also cover the things you liked for the week). Encourage them to come to you when they have things to talk about. In so doing, you’re encouraging them not to dominate meetings by giving them a place where they can still be important, but focused towards their work.

Talk to the quiet ones, who don’t speak up much during meetings. Let them know they can always come to you if they want something or had something to say they didn’t feel comfortable talking about during the meeting. Stop by their desks when you don’t want anything, just to be friendly. Encourage, them, slowly, to come out of their shells first to you (as a safe person) and then to the team, in small, controlled and safe ways.

As you can see, we’ve altered the norm when we’re done. There were a ton of benefits from understanding it, and then using that understanding to alter it.

What if you see some behavior, expressed as a norm in your group, that you like? For example, most of your team deliberately attempts to spend social time together because they enjoy each others’ company so much.

This is a really good thing in a team. People who willingly spend time with each other are less likely to do things that screw each other over. I do say less likely, because not every human understands every other human, and they will occasionally mess up; possibly more than usual, because they spend so much time together. However, because they opt to spend that time together themselves, they tend as a group, to be a lot more forgiving.

When a norm like this develops, there are always folks that are left out of the socializing, even folks within the same group. It may be that they have restricted diets so going out together doesn’t make a lot of sense, or they are new to the group, or have cultural differences…who knows.

In encouraging this norm, you want to make sure to expand it a little. This is hard to do if you’re already IN the norm. If you are one of the people who always gets invited, you may not even notice the folks in the group not being invited. This is why you really need to step back and look for norms in a group. As positive a norm as this is, and you wish to encourage, it still needs to be modified so it doesn’t create a negative affect on those who are not part of it.

This means suggesting that people who don’t normally go get invited, or inviting them yourself. It means changing up the restaurant so the folks with restricted food choices feel comfortable going. It means, as the manager, occasionally arranging company group social events, rather than letting them start organically, in order to keep everyone feeling included, and as if they could be part of the “cool crowd” who goes out together at any time.

The moral of the positive norm story is that, even if a norm is very good for your team, you still need to examine it and make sure its as good as it could be, for the whole team.

This, however, are just a few norms. I challenge you to go to your workplace and identify a norm in operation there. Then ask the following questions of yourself:

1) What is the behavior that everyone finds “normal” that makes up the norm?
· In our elevator example, the behavior is everyone facing forward.

2) What are the people engaged in the behavior trying to get out of the behavior?
· Per the example, if everyone is facing forward, they have the illusion of privacy and boundaries in a small, cramped space they share temporarily.

3) What other behaviors could take place during the norm that might achieve the affect the people are trying to get out of the behavior they are performing?
· In the example, if people tried to space themselves more evenly, it would give even a better feeling of boundaries and privacy.

4) What are the negative things that you notice about the norm?
· In this example, it encourages people not to talk to each other or otherwise to really interact with each other.

5) Are the outcomes of this norm overall positive? Do the positives of the norm outweigh the negatives you notice about the norm?
· In the elevator example, is it better to sacrifice a few moments of polite but potentially awkward interaction with strangers for a calming affect of privacy and personal boundary in a tiny space?

6) If the negatives of the norm outweigh the positives of the norm, how can you alter the norm so that the balance is changed—that the positives outweigh the negatives?
I leave this as an exercise to the reader when thinking about their own examples.

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