How to question norms in your organization

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If you haven’t read the blog post about what norm criticism is, we recommend that you start your reading there. It introduces the concept of norm criticism and why it’s important. In this post, we’ll have a more practical approach. How can norm criticism be used in your organization? How do you get started? 

The hardest thing about norms is to find them and become aware that they exist. Norms tend to be invisible until someone breaks them. To see what norms are relevant in your organization, try asking yourself these questions:

1.    What makes us consider a person a good fit for a position or as a member of our organization? For example, you might focus on recruiting people with a certain educational background. You might do this for good reasons, because you need your employees to have this specific background to have the competence required. But it might also be for some other reason, for example that you’re used to recruiting people with that specific background and you stick to this habit because you know that it usually works out well. Maybe you have never thought about the reason. 


2.    What do we have in common in our team? Do we all have the same gender, age, ethnicity, and so on? For this exercise, you’ll need to use the information you have about your team, but keep in mind that you might have team members who break the norms without you knowing about it. They might have a disability without you knowing about it, for example. If a team member doesn’t let the team know about a disability, it could be because they don’t think it’s a safe environment to be open about it. 


3.    If you were to draw a picture of a typical coworker, employee, customer, member, or citizen, who would you draw? Why would you draw that? What do you think your other team members would draw? Maybe something important would be missing from all your pictures? That could indicate that you need to become better at seeing and listening to some groups of people.

Through using these three methods to make norms visible, you have already taken a big step. Like we stated above: norms tend to be invisible until they are broken. The stronger the norm, the harder it is to see it. Now that you have taken the norms out into the light, visible to you, you can start questioning them.

Some questions you can use:

1.    Why do we have this particular norm? Is it necessary?

2.    What effect does this norm have on our working climate, our relationships in the workplace, and on our results?

3.    Does this norm make is hard or impossible for people who don’t follow the norm to be part of our team or use our services? (For example: are our meetings accessible for disabled people?)

4.    What happens if we break the norm?

5.    If we want to break the norm, how could we do that? 

These questions are not easy to answer. Especially the last one requires you to find a strategy, and doing that in a realistic and functional way requires time and effort. The aim of this list of questions is to show you what kind of questions you can use to get started on your norm criticism journey. You can use them as a guide in your thought process. 

Good luck with the norm criticism!