Does the idea of setting team norms make you roll your eyes and decide that an hour of playing Angry Birds would be a better use of your time?

We agree … that is, if setting team norms is about creating a checklist of actions and plans that will never again see the light of day. Or if norms are written for a work world that doesn’t exist. Or if norms assume that today’s team members will be tomorrow’s team members and everybody is respectful and mature.

You get the point. While it may be true that establishing clear and agreed-upon norms for behavior within the team is a good thing to do, it is also true that setting norms can feel like a joke in many organizations. Even if team members are well-intentioned, their day-to-day challenges can easily override norms that are unrealistic.

If you are a team leader — or a project manager or anyone with a “take charge” role to play — consider the norms that matter to you and to the work. Understanding your own perspective will help you think about your own behavior and effective ways to guide the team.

Think of a time when you were part of a work team that accomplished something truly exceptional. What did leadership do to contribute to this success? What did fellow team members do? What did you do? How could you and your team recreate more of these positive aspects today?

At some point, you’ll want to get the group talking about team norms and setting them together (but maybe you don’t need to schedule it as “The Team Norms Meeting”). Here’s an activity we share with participants in CCL’s Leading Teams for Impact program. It helps to draw out what team members think are best practices and what kind of actions they think hinder team performance:

Step 1. Ask each member to think of the worst team he or she has served on. Any group counts — a work team, a volunteer group, a sports team or any other group in which the members were dependent on each other to produce results.

Step 2. Have each team member spend two minutes writing down what made that experience so terrible. Direct them to be as specific as possible about their reasons.

Step 3. Ask team members to share their experiences with the whole group.

Step 4. Ask team members to think of the best team experience they have had. As with the negative experience, each team member should spend two minutes writing down what made the experience so good. Also, as before, encourage team members to share their experiences with the whole team.

Step 5. With these comments in mind, discuss as a group what makes for a good team experience and what makes for a bad one.

Step 6. Ask team members to suggest behaviors that would make serving on the current team a positive experience and would contribute to the team’s success. Pay attention to the most relevant issues or actions that could affect the team’s biggest challenges. Be sure to keep track of suggestions on a screen or large sheet of paper that all team members can view.

Step 7. Discuss the suggestions as a group and decide as a group which ones the team agrees it can support and adhere to.

As part of this step, flag any concerns or challenges that the team thinks they may struggle with. Even if you can’t identify a solid solution, doing this keeps reality in the forefront. For example, at CCL most of us are on multiple research, writing or planning teams in addition to our client work. With full days and even full weeks booked well in advance, we often struggle with the simple task of getting five or six team members together on a conference call. Simply setting a norm of “participating in team meetings” doesn’t help us overcome our scheduling issues. But in flagging this as a challenge, a team can be direct (and possibly more creative) about how its members communicate, accomplish the work, make decisions and move forward.

Step 8. Transfer the team’s list of “must-do” behaviors into a document so all team members have access to it. Your team may choose to post the list in its regular meeting room or on a team Web site for quick reference. Also discuss how to respond to a team member who doesn’t follow the norms. What is the mechanism for dealing with this situation? Ideally, the team members will take ownership of team norms, calling out inconsistencies and violations rather than expecting the team leader to police the process.

Finally, to avoid the trap of not living up to team expectations and norms, talk about them. Bring new team members up to speed and get their input. Make it a point to discuss what is working and what isn’t. Keep the norms front-and-center, revisit them to update and add norms, and encourage meetings to address both the “what” and “how” functioning of the team.

Setting norms shouldn’t be a one-time activity — in reality, it’s just a way to start talking about how the team gets the job done.

Look for more “Leading Teams” tips and activities in upcoming issues of Leading Effectively.

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