Group Norms in Organizations

Group norms are the informal rules that groups adopt to regulate members’ behavior. Norms are characterized by their evaluative nature; that is, they refer to what should be done. Norms represent value judgments about appropriate behavior in social situations. Although they are infrequently written down or even discussed, norms have powerful influence on group behavior. If each individual in a group decided how to behave in each interaction, no one would be able to predict the behavior of any group member; chaos would reign. Norms guide behavior and reduce ambiguity in groups.

Groups do not establish norms about every conceivable situation but only with respect to things that are significant to the group. Norms might apply to every member of the group or to only some members. Norms that apply to particular group members usually specify the role of those individuals. Norms vary in the degree to which they are accepted by all members of the group: some are accepted by almost everyone, others by some members and not others. For example, university faculty and students accept the faculty norm of teaching, but students infrequently accept the norm of faculty research. Finally, norms vary in terms of the range of permissible deviation; sanctions, either mild or extreme, are usually applied to people for breaking norms. Norms also differ with respect to the amount of deviation that is tolerable. Some norms require strict adherence, but others do not.

Understanding how group norms develop and why they are enforced is important to managers. Group norms are important determinants of whether a group will be productive. A work group with the norm that its proper role is to help management will be far more productive than one whose norm is to be antagonistic to management. Managers can play a part in setting and changing norms by helping to set norms that facilitate tasks, assessing whether a group’s norms are functional, and addressing counterproductive norms with subordinates.

Norms usually develop slowly as groups learn those behaviors that will facilitate their activities. However, this slow development can be short-circuited by critical events or by a group’s decision to change norms. Most norms develop in one or more of four ways: (1) explicit statements by supervisors or coworkers; (2) critical events in the group’s history; (3) primacy, or by virtue of their introduction early in the group’s history; and (4) carryover behaviors from past situations.

Why are group norms enforced? The most important reason is to ensure group survival. They are also enforced to simplify or make predictable the expected behavior of group members. That is, they are enforced to help groups avoid embarrassing interpersonal problems, to express the central values of the group, and to clarify what is distinctive about it.