Creating explicit norms or protocols

Transformation in any organization has the potential to produce unwanted conflict, often leading to ineffective processes, reduced communication, and poor working relationships. It is inevitable and a fact of life. Change brings about tension and without managing the behaviors of individuals and the organization as a whole, you might see your organization’s ability to succeed plummet.

The impact is exponential. Again, we go back to the previous post “Rethinking our own leadership style“—in that, each employee’s actions, inactions, and interactions shape the environment of the organization, their cumulative effect can have much more dramatic results.

When it comes to the tensions hindering the progress of your organization, you can take two approaches. For one, you can take a BB gun line of attack by relentlessly documenting each employee demonstrating patterns of sub-par behavior, ultimately leading to disciplinary action. Word will get around that certain behaviors are not tolerated, and everyone else will get the hint. Yet, without a well-known set of “rules,” this approach might create more stress within, especially for you. It may even push many employees to stray away from working with their peers for fear of disciplinary action if things go badly in their own day-to-day dealings.

The second option, “Creating explicit norms or protocols,” can be linked to a shotgun approach. In effect, it is far-reaching and effective, yet it doesn’t dismiss those who are already doing things right. Creating explicit protocols is about you making a deliberate effort to engage your employees in the creation of shared and accepted expectations for employee behavior. In other words, you facilitate the proactive development and agreement of productive group norms. These norms serve as organization-wide commitments to act or behave in certain ways. Once these agreements are in place, your employees will have the capacity to turn conflict and tension into progress.

Spending the necessary time to eliminate any ambiguity in expected behaviors is far from wasteful when the aim is to provide a concise guide for individual and collective behavior. A systematic approach guarantees, above all, that everyone recognizes the values they share as a group. Explicitly developed productive norms have the advantage of helping employees deal consciously and conscientiously with any situation before it begins to impede progress.

Try this.

At your next meeting facilitate the creation of organization-wide norms or protocols. I offer you a simple nominal group technique.

  1. Place everyone in groups of six to eight with the chairs arranged in a circular fashion.
  2. Assign each group with a recorder to document the sharing of each employee’s desired norm on a large poster in the middle of the circle. (Note: You may want to assign the recorder. This has to be someone who is skilled in keeping conversations on track.)
  3. Give everyone one index card and ask each employee to write one desired norm or protocol that will help create an organizational culture that is conducive to collegiality and group effort.
  4. After each employee’s statement, the recorder asks the group if they understood the desired norm, agreed with the norm, or had some reservations about the norm.
  5. Everyone continues to share their desired norms until all the cards within the group were read and clarified.
  6. Once each group finishes, the meeting transitions back to whole-group where each recorder briefly summarizes their group’s dialogue and posted their respective poster for all to see.
  7. Assign everyone a partner and give each group ten colored dots. Ask them to walk around the room (similar to a gallery walk), exchange ideas on the various norms, and vote on the ones they jointly felt would have the maximum influence on building a positive organizational climate and culture.
  8. Count the number of dots for each desired norm, announce the top fifteen norms that would serve as the initial guideposts for accepted behavior, and ask if anyone would have difficulty committing to the newly established norms.

Now, as the leader, it is essential that you hold others accountable for the newly established ideal behaviors. Ultimately the aim is for each and every employee to begin holding one another accountable. That takes time, persistence, and modeling by you.

Try this.

If you observe an employee failing to adhere to the agreed upon protocols meet with them. During the meeting “describe the gap” by stating the following—almost word for word.

(Employee’s Name) on (date) we all agreed upon (the protocol for the behavior they failed to follow). On (date/time their uncooperative behavior was observed) I noticed that you (their specific negative behavior). What’s going on?

Now just sit and listen intently; trying to “hear” the root of the problem. Is it motivation or ability? Both require a different response. Oftentimes a failure to meet expectations surrounding agreed upon behaviors tends to be a motivation issue. If this is the case you want to make the invisible visible; in other words, explain any inherent consequences they may not see.

I always like to challenge their values. Check this out.

You know (Employee’s Name), we all agreed to (the protocol for the behavior they failed to follow). When you don’t follow through with this your colleagues might wonder if they can trust you. Everyone was there and agreed.

Ouch! You know how much employees yearn to keep the respect of their peers. It takes you out of the equation.

This approach stems from skills outlined in the book, Crucial Confrontations; a resource all leaders should explore. The book works to give people the tools to hold others accountable without damaging relationships. Check it out.

Final Thoughts

No doubt bringing all your employees together can help achieve a positive context. They can go a long way toward building a collaboration-filled culture when they put effective processes in place to draw the system as a whole into creating protocols agreement. With agreement comes the institutionalization of productive norms. This is an ongoing process, which takes persistence, time, and effort, because agreement is constantly changing as the organization faces new internal and external challenges of change.

Activities in a nutshell

  1. Work with your employees to create, and agree upon, explicit norms or protocols.
  2. Hold employees accountable for these expected behaviors.

Questions for you.

Please take the time to add any additional thoughts, ideas, or processes in the comment box. Have you had to deal with employee behaviors that were detrimental to the organization? How did you respond? What specific processes have you used to develop explicit norms or protocols to guide employee behavior?


Perry Wiseman, author, Strong Schools, Strong Leaders: What matter most in times of change

Strong Schools Strong Leaders Cover

5 thoughts on “Creating explicit norms or protocols

    • Anna,
      Thanks for your comments. Let me know how it goes, okay? One of the most important pieces is the act of asking “if anyone would have difficulty committing to the newly established norms.” In other words, get a commitment!

  1. Man! Its like you scan my mind! You seem to understand most concerning this, a bit like you wrote the book in it or one thing. i feel that you will do with some pictures to drive the content home somewhat, besides that, this is informative blog. A outstanding read. ill actually come again.

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