How To Maintain Company Norms

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How To Maintain Company Norms

Why are the company norms important?

The norms that a company has impact its capacity to reach its goals and to operate efficiently.  

Company norms are shared expectations of its members about their behavior. Through norms, the members of a company know what is expected from them and how their behaviours are evaluated in the company.

Norms are part of the company culture because every norm is based on certain beliefs and values. When a group of people share the same beliefs and values, they have similar attitudes towards certain things.

Two essential components of a norm, that gives it power, are the SANCTIONS and the REWARDS that it implies.

Sometimes the sanctions are explicit, and the employee knows exactly what can happen if he/she doesn’t comply with a norm. For example: disciplinary investigations, relegation, dismissal, etc. Other times, the consequences are not explicit and vary, depending of the people who sustain the norm, for example: critics, marginalization, or disapproval.

In the case of rewards, explicit rewards could be: bonuses or other financial rewards, promotions. And the rewards that are not specified in internal policies or documents, can be for example: acceptance, praises, appreciation, prestige, respect, supportive attitude, etc.

In an organization are two types of norms:

1. Written or formal norms

These are the norms that we find for example in the company’s internal regulations, in job descriptions, in work security documents, or in written internal work processes.

Many of these norms are coming from outside the company, because the company has to comply with different laws and regulations of the state in which it operates.

However, these norms are strongly influenced by the management of the company. Even though, for example, are certain laws about how the working schedule has to be, the company can choose between many allowed forms of working schedules. Even though are certain rules about the employee’s rights and obligations, established in labor laws, the company can establish its own rules, with the condition not to infringe the legal regulations. The rules each company establish depends on the people who runs it.

2. Unwritten or informal norms

These are shared expectations, but are not written in documents. These can be transmitted verbally, can be observed in the company’s members behaviours and attitudes.

These norms can be less visible to the people who have been with a company for a long time. These become natural in time, and they even can forget that things can be different in other companies.

Some of these norms become visible when new members come in. In the beginning they are not yet used to how things are going in the company and may behave differently or expect different things. They may be more attentive in this period to observe what is allowed and what is not.

A new employee who was used to communicate often with his supervisor and to approach him whenever he needed help with something, may find out that his new supervisor can be approached only in some parts of the day and only if he schedules a meeting with him in advance.

Or, another example, a new employee may notice that nobody has personal items in their working space. This may make him to question if it’s a good idea to bring his family photo to put it on his desk, as he used to do at his previous job.

Challenges that a company can encounter with its norms

Not all the company’s members share the same beliefs and values, so they may disagree with certain norms within the company.

New employees come with patterns they learned at their past jobs. They have their own systems of beliefs and values.

The company’s members can develop norms that are not aligned with what the top management wants. This can happen with informal norms, and it’s more likely to happen in large companies where the distance between top management and a part of the employees is large.

Introducing new norms – how to get a rule to be accepted by the employees.

How a company maintains its norms

The company’s members follow the internal norms for different reasons:

They share the values or the beliefs on which the norms are based.

They agree with these. They don’t doubt the correctness of the norms.

They may not agree with some norms but choose to respect them in order to be accepted, to avoid different negative consequences or to obtain different rewards.

In this case, they comply for external reasons. Internally, they don’t have the values, the beliefs or the attitudes that conducted to those specific norms.

For example, one employee may disagree with the communication style that she is required to adopt in written communication with external collaborators, but comply with it in order to avoid unpleasant discussions with the supervisor. The supervisor may ask her to be more persuasive, while she thinks that this will damage the relationships with them.

The downsides of this type of conformity

One downside of this type of conformity is that people may break the norms when they are not seen, when the extern factors that control their conformity are not present.

So, if one employee respects the working hours because his supervisor sees when he leaves and not because he thinks that it’s his duty to work 8 hours, according with his contract, he may leave earlier when his supervisor is not at the office and when no one could see when he left.

Or, in the example above, the employee who doesn’t agree to use a persuasive communication style may conform to this request when she has to send emails with her supervisor in Cc, but if she discusses with the collaborator in a different situation, if they meet in person or discuss on the phone, she may adopt a different style, or even can say that she was asked to talk in that way but she doesn’t agree with it.

This behaviour is the result of her internal conflicts. When we behave in ways that are not according to our values and beliefs, internal conflicts occur. Inner conflicts are another downside of this type of conformity.

The employee may comply with a norm just because one person whom he/she admires supports the norm.

This mechanism is well known and used in advertising. Public figures, such as actors or influencers, are asked to promote different products because they are appreciated, they have admirers. They are models for others. Others imitate them.

As always, these kinds of strategies can be used in a good way and in a bad way. Choose to use it only in good ways because over time people will figure out what happened and lose trust in the person who influenced them and in the management.

How to handle situations in which employees comply with different norms for external reasons

Sometimes the employees are open and say that they don’t agree with something, and other times they do what they are asked without saying anything about the fact that they don’t consider that is good or right.

Your response when they do say that they don’t agree with something plays an important role in whether they will remain open in the future. If they are listened and their arguments are taken into consideration, chances are that they will remain open.

You can take these discussions as an opportunity to reassess the norm that is questioned, to see if it is helpful or has some disadvantages. Also, these discussions are an opportunity to explain the norm to the employee, to help him/her understand the reasons for which the norm was adopted. He/she may change his/her opinions after this discussion. Sometimes norms are transmitted without being properly explained.

For example, one employee disagrees with the fact that in his department people have to complete an activity report and send it to their supervisor weekly. He may see this requirement as a way of control, based on lack of trust, and as a waste of time.

Some supervisors may ask for such a report for these reasons and how they use it reflects these reasons.

This department supervisor reasons may be different. His reasons might be:

He consider that is a useful tool for the employee to organize his activities, to keep track of them, to know at any time what is the status of his activities and to plan the next steps

Increases the employee responsibility on how he is using the working time.

The employee has a mirror of his activities and results and this may help him o improve his activities.

May be to reduce the numbers of meetings with the employee. If the supervisor knows from the report what is the status of his activities doesn’t have to necessarily ask him in person. He could intervene just when he sees that something is taking too much time or the employee doesn’t do what’s necessary.

The report can be a useful tool for the employee as well for the supervisor in performance evaluation processes. If the employee is assessed annually, it’s hard for him and for his supervisor to know accurately what happened in the last year just from memory.

If the supervisor explains all these reasons to the employee, he may shift his perception and see how the activity report actually helps him very much.

What happens when people have inner conflicts because they have to behave in a way that is not aligned with their values and beliefs?

So, if the employee decides to respect the norm, and have the behaviour is expected of him/her, in time he/she may change his/her beliefs to match his/her behaviour.

According to Cognitive Dissonance Theory, people can reduce the tension produced by inner conflicts in different ways.

1.

They can change the importance of the behavior that causes them tension. In the earlier example with the employee who is required to use a more persuasive communication, the employee may say to himself that he has other more important things to worry about than how the person who receives his emails feels.

2.

The employee can add new information to reduce the tension – ‘’At least I have results’’.

3.

The employee can change his attitude about using a more persuasive communication – ‘’It’s a good way to accomplish my objectives’’

Cognitive Dissonance Theory was developed by Leon Festinger in 1957. The main idea of this theory is that a person who is asked to behave in a way that is not aligned with his beliefs transforms his beliefs to match his behavior, if the external pressure to behave in a certain way is low. The stronger the external pressure to do something that is contrary to our beliefs, the less likely the person will change his/her beliefs. Research done by him and other researchers supported his theory.

Can you remember such a situation, in which you changed your beliefs after you had to behave in a way that wasn’t aligned with your beliefs at that time? How did you shift your beliefs? What did you tell yourself?

How to introduce new norms in the company

Till now we covered most of the challenges that a company has, through the given examples.

Now, let’s see how new norms can be introduced in a company. 

In order for a rule to become a norm it has to be accepted by the majority of the company’s members.

They have to know about it and to know the reasons that lead to this rule.

If it's a written rule

If it’s a written rule, it’s easier because the members can be informed about the change trough email and/or through a meeting. Then they can be asked to sign  that they were informed. Their questions, worries, doubts can be addressed at this moment, and even encouraged to be communicated. In this way, these can be discussed. False assumptions or wrong interpretations can be solved from the beginning.

Before introducing the rule officially, you could ask a small group of members to say their opinions about the rule. This can help you see what are the possible reactions and to prepare for its implementation.

If it's an unwritten rule

If it is a certain behavior that is desired in the company, such as practicing assertive communication, employees need to know what assertive communication is and how to practice it. They need to have role models to learn from, be rewarded for practicing it, and be reminded to use it when they don’t. 

Key Points:

1.Why are the company norms important?
2. What is a norm 
3. Two types of norms: written or formal norms, and unwritten or informal norms
4. Challenges that a company can encounter with its norms
5. How a company maintain its norms
6. How to handle situations in which employees comply with different norms for external reasons
7. What happens when people have inner conflicts caused by the fact that they have to behave in a way that is not aligned with their values and beliefs
8. How to introduce new norms in the company

Let me know what are your thoughts about norms. If you have questions about this post I’ll be happy to answer them at: daniela.tancau@improvework.ro

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