Do We Have Team Norms or “Nice to Knows”?
Roadblock: Lack of Accountability Protocol
Some teams do a great job of developing norms. Members agree and commit to them, even posting them on chart paper to be prominently displayed at every meeting. Elementary school teams often add attractive artwork in the form of ladybugs and bumblebees, and they may even go as far as laminating the chart paper. They feel great about the process. They know they’ve made progress.
But here’s what they don’trealize: no matter how well-developed norms are, no matter how committed the teammates are, no matter how prominently the norms are displayed, someone is going to violate them. I know it’s hard to fathom, but someone who agreed to the posted norms, who put their magic marker thumbprint on the poster and signed around it in a show of real commitment, who high-fived at the end of the norms creation session is going to violate one—or more—of them. And when that happens, the team finds itself at a crossroad. Teammates will begin to awkwardly look at one another, trying to figure out the next step and appropriate response. The questions of how to respond and who is going to respond will dominate their thoughts. Why? They did not establish an accountability protocol. In my work with hundreds of PLC teams, I find this step to be the one most commonly missed by teams that have established norms.
They don’t have a process for answering the following question: What is our process for holding each other accountable in a respectful and dignified manner? Unanswered, this question is a definite team-dynamic derailer. Without this process in place, teams will end up with a list of “nice to knows,” rather than effective team norms.
Reason: “No One Will Violate the Norms”
Teams typically experience a wave of positive feelings soon after establishing team norms and mistakenly believe that the mere establishment of behavioral commitments is the end of the process. The feeling of accomplishing the task of developing team norms sometimes blinds teams to the fact that they have to know how to respond when violations occur. The truth is, they don’t believe that violations will occur.
In my experience, I don’t see teams skipping this step intentionally. In fact, most of the literature regarding team norms does not adequately address this step. The harsh reality is that the time and energy invested in developing team norms does not eliminate the need to have a protocol ready for when norms are violated. Without accountability protocols, one of three scenarios typically occurs:
- The norm violation is not addressed, and as a result, unspoken tension and frustration grow within the collaborative team.
- The norm violation is addressed, but inappropriately. With no established protocol, reaction to the confrontation becomes defensive.
- Too early in the process, the team takes the issue to the principal for him or her to handle.
When teams establish a process for holding each other accountable when someone violates a norm, then unnecessary confrontations and unspoken tensions are avoided. It’s a given that violations will occur, and collaborative teams that have a predefined process for dealing with them will be the ones that become highly effective. Teams that don’t engage in this very important step will often end up with a list of “nice to knows” instead of effective team norms and commitments. Teams that do address the question, “What happens when?” create the kind of safety and predictability on their team that serves to accelerate the collaborative culture.