Don’t let norms stifle creativity

If an organization’s shared attitudes and opinions are stifling creativity-the key ingredient in innovative, high-productivity companies-managers must lead the effort to change group norms.

Two months ago you assembled the six most talented individuals you could find for your new project team. They were bright, eager, and quite knowledgeable in their fields of expertise. The project seemed to get off to an enthusiastic start; three or four members had several innovative ideas worthy of considering for the project.

At first there were heated arguments about the best direction to take. After a few weeks, however, you noticed that they were settling into fairly routine actions and that, in fact, all six of them were agreeing on conventional solutions to the problems. Most of the “new” ideas offered were not new at all but rather, rehashed programs that had proven inadequate. The plans they presented do not seem to exhibit any of that innovation and talent you were counting on. What stifled it?

Targeting Individuals or the Group?

This very question has been asked by forward-looking managers in many companies at one time or another. Answering it is particularly important when new conditions demand that changes be made-when the traditional solutions no longer lead to bottom-line progress.

In searching for an answer, the most natural place to look is at the individuals involved. Are most of them bright but lazy? Are they “loner” types whose best “style” is to work independently? Maybe the particular mix of people has some “personality conflicts” and can’t agree on anything. The attitudes of individuals, then, become the target. Efforts to change them include such actions as replacing the laziest members, instituting democratic “rules” for reaching agreement so that everyone can be heard and appreciated, or even dividing up tasks” so that each member can solve his or her own piece of the problem.

Group Norms

While some or all of these explanations provide some insight into the problems of individuals, the key point is overlooked: Our attitudes arise from an “invisible” influence-the norms of the groups in which we participate.

A norm is an attitude, opinion, feeling, or action-shared by two or more people-that guides their behavior. Groups are characterized by the norms their members share. The norms of a group regulate and coordinate interactions among its members. If norms were absent, we might refer to the individuals physically assembled in the same place as an aggregate, but not as a group.

We can understand the project group’s low level of creativity by first examining the role of norms and traditions operating within groups. Second, we can look at how norms arise. Finally, understanding how group norms can change from a stagnant status quo to productive problem solving provides the key to unleashing maximum creativity.

The concepts of norms, standards, and traditions are not often used to describe individuals. Groups have norms, but individuals usually are not pictured that way. We may speak of someone as having an attitude or values, but it is more customary to speak of a group as having norms or traditions. Even though it is individuals who transmit the norms of the group, the norms and traditions themselves belong to groups, not individuals.

The project team above, then, may share certain behavioral regularities: 30-minute coffee breaks, getting started late, or waiting for a certain member to read over the plans from the last meeting. These habits, which are reinforced over time, become the group’s norms and traditions. Other norms can center on such operating modes as avoiding conflict so that no member’s feathers are ruffled or requiring a majority vote on each idea adopted. Traditions, precedents, and policies also constitute norms that may either stimulate or stifle creativity.

Group Cohesion in the Work Place

Common interests, values, and attitudes among group members contribute to a group’s cohesion. At the outset, people are attracted to those with similar backgrounds and interests; as they share experiences over time they come to develop common feelings, norms, and customs. Psychological studies have demonstrated repeatedly that members of a cohesive group tend to conform to group norms even if it means contradicting a previously held opinion not shared by the group.

The Two Sides of Conformity

The process by which group attitudes and behavioral norms are adopted is called convergence toward the norm. Social forces powerful enough to influence members to conform may influence them to perform at a very high level of quality and productivity. All too often, however, the pressure to conform stifles creativity, influencing members to cling to attitudes that may be out of touch with organizational needs and even out of kilter with the times. As a result, important innovations are not made, and there is a heavy price to pay.

The managers you handpicked on the project team converged toward a norm of low productivity and routine thinking. Whenever a member pressed for an innovative or bold approach to the problem at hand, others in the group ignored or opposed his or her position. The member who persisted with a “deviant” viewpoint would have been promptly rejected by the others. An understanding of how convergence toward the group norm and conformity operate can be seen in the fate of a General Motors executive who challenged the “big car” norm. For a while, the other members tried to swing the executive around to their point of view. When they were unsuccessful, the manager was ignored but not forgotten and, eventually, terminated.

Once a norm is established, conformity pressures keep it in use. In many respects, this is basic to the exercise of cooperation. But this cooperation may no longer be in tune with the needs of the time-when cooperative employees in a “smoothly running” status quo operation are not enough to meet the demands of new competition, regulation, cutbacks, or other environmental forces.

Why Most Change Efforts Fail

Unaware that norms exist, many managers who want to increase creativity rely on the exercise of unilateral power to compel shifts in behavior. Such a manager may say to a lethargic group, “I demand that this group get hopping right away. We need some solutions around here fast. Furthermore, we need to move in a completely different direction. What we’ve been doing is no good anymore.” These statements rest on the assumption that the command itself is strong enough to produce the desired behavior.

The method is sometimes successful, but far more often it fails because the people who are supposed to “get hopping” usually resist. They would rather act according to the prevailing norms set by their colleagues’ behavior than to follow a boss’s directives-though they may not realize this specifically and consciously. Change-by-decree not only provokes resistance, but also may alienate those expected to shift their behavior.

Using a different strategy, you may decide to take a “go slow” approach to change. Over a period of time, you know what the norms are and you discourage an “overnight” approach to change. But without a systematic effort to evaluate norms and develop a change strategy, you may become merely the spokesperson for the group’s normative culture and fail to influence any real change.

Shifting the Norms in Your Organization

After prevailing norms are identified and understood, specific steps can be taken toward shifting to norms that better serve corporate objectives. In examining a work group’s existing attitudes and values, new norms can be explored for increasing productivity and creativity. The key to achieving such a norm shift, however, is to involve those who are controlled by a norm in changing the norm. Let’s examine the conditions for accomplishing this:

  1. Organizational members who need to shift their behavior should become active participants in the systematic change process. A first step is to help decision makers identify the assumptions they make as they work to achieve results with and through others. Once a clear and objective understanding of norms is in place team members openly discuss and evaluate prevailing norms before adopting new ones.
  2. The managers responsible for ultimate decisions lead the change effort. If you, the project team leader, are not involved in the process of thinking through the limitations of existing norms, you can’t support and approve the development of new, more appropriate norms. Project team managers who examine their own leadership approaches and receive feedback from other managers can examine their own behavior in light of theory-based change.
  3. Because group norms are rarely self-evident, the development of a strategy by which participants can identify and address problems is essential to managing norms and standards. One way to do this is to formulate an open, direct, and unbiased statement that identifies the problem. Then ask participants what can be done to solve it. Applying this strategy to your project team, you and the team members would discuss dissatisfaction with the low quality of your output and diagnose the problem. Only after the group focuses on the problem can the norm become visible and commitments be made toward solutions.
  4. Facts and data to clear up misconceptions that hold an unproductive norm in place are provided. With sound culture development, a free and open exchange of information facilitates the rejection of an old norm and the acceptance of one that squares better with the facts in the situation.
  5. Opportunities are provided to ventilate feelings and emotions. In this way negative attitudes that prevent constructive problem solving are dissolved and new norms developed.
  6. Casual agreements made during the process are crystallized to prevent misunderstandings later on. Clarification, written recordings, and repeated communication of group agreements about change prevent confusion from diluting the effectiveness of planned norm shifts.
  7. Follow-up is essential to support changes in norms. Because new norms are always weaker than those they replace, people tend to backslide toward the norm that previously prevailed. After the project team has adopted new norms, the manager and team should regularly review them for slippage.
  8. Although the above steps can lead to effective changes in any work group, the best results occur when they are consistent with organization-wide efforts to merge attitudes toward productivity with high organizational performance.
Moving Out of the Predicament

A large regional utilities company was able to solve problems arising from the norms that were hampering a project team’s progress in making key decisions. Pressures were mounting after unexpected fuel cost increases and new technological developments triggered staggering first quarter losses.

The engineering division manager faced a number of tough decisions concerning the newest plant. His project team began to flounder, even though he had handpicked the members who, he thought, were the best people around. After he and another division manager discussed these problems and began to examine the norms and culture of their company, they realized that operations were conducted primarily on a “compromise” basis. Few people wished to “rock the boat” by suggesting plans or programs that departed from past precedents. On the Grid framework in Exhibit 1 they identified this as 5,5, or “Organization Man” management, because a moderate level of concern for production balanced a moderate level of concern for people.

The project team manager and team members decided to spearhead an effort to raise the quality of the team’s recommendations. They developed a norm-shifting action plan that included several facets. First they discussed their drift toward mediocrity and then wrote a short description of the problems as they saw them.

As it turned out, there were several misconceptions about the reasons for the needed plant changes. Once these were cleared up with some relevant cost data and an open discussion, productive plans were made with the full commitment of the team members.

Another serious problem had been the manager’s lack of involvement with the group. Although he expected top-quality results, it appeared to the team that they would have to take all the “heat” from any off-beat or risky recommendations they made. As the manager became involved with the team in identifying the problems and prevailing norms, they were able to move toward adopting the norms that promoted rather than retarded innovation in the company. Follow-up activities included the team’s making a short weekly report on Monday morning and tracking their progress during the past week. Backsliding was also recognized and addressed in these sessions.

Team members began feeling freer to entertain ideas that had not been tried before. The 9,9 Grid theory of principled management offered a model for team members to use in giving one another feedback and critique. Even though they spent some time in heated debate about the efficacy of one or another proposal, the quality of the recommendations improved dramatically. After several of their plans were successfully implemented in the new plant, they began taking pride in their identity as innovative troubleshooters.

Norm Shifting for Productivity: Another Example

Employees in a large plant had gotten into the habit of slacking off during the last hour of the day’s shift. Supervisors were aware of the problem and felt pressure from their managers to take action. However, the problem seemed so entrenched that they considered it virtually insoluble. Instead, the supervisors avoided the problem by burying themselves inside their offices with paperwork during that hour of the day. After management confronted the supervisors with the issue, the four managers and 20 supervisors began meeting together to diagnose and remedy the problem. Previous attempts to solve it were evaluated so that ineffective plans could be understood and avoided in the future. In a discussion of the underlying reasons for the problem, supervisors zeroed in on their own feelings about who was to blame for the problem. Finally, it was agreed that none of the managers had felt any responsibility for turning the problem around. A group norm of allowing the problem to continue arose from the distrust the supervisors had felt toward one another.

At the next several meetings the discussion opened up. Solutions were developed and plans made. An action plan was formulated. It was agreed that during the first few weeks all supervisors would meet with their employees about the new plans, and the supervisors themselves would become visibly active in their work areas. During the next few weeks the supervisors talked to anyone seen slacking off and interviewed them to see if they understood the new plan. If the behavior continued, disciplinary actions were to be taken. It turned out, however, that no disciplinary actions were needed. The supervisors’ commitment to solving the problem was enough to clear the air and improve morale among supervisors and employees alike. The supervisors reconvened twice to review progress.

This approach to the problem of slacking off is a good example of how norm shifting can be used to replace a “do nothing” norm that had been held in place by the distrust the supervisors felt toward one another.

Conditions That Promote Creativity

Although many approaches aimed at reducing the effects of conformity have been developed, the more genuine solution is for group members to understand and themselves counteract the constraints exerted by these pressures. Brainstorming and other techniques that involve “rules” aimed at reducing convergence or conformity effects may be useful. Ultimately, however, creativity will be heightened to the greatest extent when members acquire discussion skills that enable them to retain independence in the face of pressures. When problems and proposed solutions depend on an objective, critical examination of the facts at hand, it is particularly important that group participants be able to monitor and modify the influence of group norms.

The Management of Norms

Recognizing and observing the effects of norms as an “invisible web of control,” then, is essential to managing the dynamics of norms and conformity in the work place. The process of leading a norm-changing effort involves managers in a systematic study of the role of norms in their own operational units. All employees who share prevailing norms must be involved in examining and redirecting them if any productive change is to occur. Through strategy-development sessions in which data are shared, emotions ventilated, and agreements clarified, the negative attitudes and misunderstandings that block progress can be overcome. Finally, an organization-wide focus on development and strategic change prevents the adoption of “patched on” solutions that can slip under pressure.

ROBERT R. BLAKE is chairman of Scientific Methods, Inc. (P.O. Box 195, Austin, Texas 78767). He received his B.A. in psychology from Berea College, his M.A. in psychology from the University of Virginia, and his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas

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