Kenneth C. Williams

Kenneth C. Williams, a former teacher, assistant principal, and principal, shares his experience and expertise as a recognized trainer, speaker, coach, and consultant in education and leadership.

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.



Reading your blog has really opened my eyes to the fact that our PLC team norms are non-existent now. I have not seen them since we developed them at the beginnning of the year. I like the idea of eliminating problems before they may arise and making sure we hold each other accountable for the norms that were created together. It will help eliminate the tension that is beginning to build because we are having trouble staying on task and focused ont he task at hand. this helps me to be able to help our team become better. Thank you for sharing all your insight and ideas. They will be very helpful!

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Kenneth Williams

Thanks for responding George! I love the way you worded 'permission to keep the norm.' I see your input and suggestions as just one more layer of effective 'frontloading' in the service of the team working effectively. Before becoming a student of PLCs, I actually thought that the time spent on collective commitments was not time well-spent. I learned my lesson the hard way. Thanks for contributing to this dialogue, and thanks for deepening my work, as I will take your ideas forward!



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This is brilliant and marks where my experience tells me most teams struggle with being effective in a collaborative environment. Ken Williams is right. It is easy to do the work of setting norms, but the real progress is in the keeping of the norms. Here are some ideas/examples of making that process more doable.

Whenever a team makes a norm, they would do well if they also created an action, protocol, ceremony or routine that gives everyone in the group permission to keep the norm. For example...if you have a norm "We will be cellphone free in our meeting." Then a protocol would be at the very beginning of the meeting everyone takes out there cellphone and turns it off.

Here's another...If we have a norm that states "we will stay on task and not bird-walk" then the accountability action would be when a member detects that the group is off task, they simple place their fingers on the table and exaggerate two fingers doing a bird walk. I love the the story Mike Mattos tells of his leadership norm at Pioneer Middle School not droning on and on about a subject where action or a decision needs to happen. A member of his team would thrown in a laminated photo of a essence, "stop beating the dead horse."

In my staff meetings I struggled getting the staff to show up exactly on time. For some reason, the staff held themselves to a lower standard then they did their students! So we set the same norm we have for kids..."Be on time ready to participate." I had my assistant stand at the door and when 8:30 a.m. hit exactly, she'd pick up the roster clipboard where other had signed in and they would have to come to her to register their attendance. When anyone was late, I, as the principal, had a professional conversation with during the day. Amazing how I had 100% "On-time-ness" from the first meeting on.

I encourage teams create an associated protocol with every norm, within reason. It makes all the difference and put our actions where our values are!!! Plus, it is kinda fun, builds in from the beginning an accountability mechanism, and gives real permission to keep the norm that everyone said was important.

Good luck!

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