Norms are hard to see and hard to change, because of their very nature: it's difficult to change the status quo when that's all we know right now. It has become a "norm" precisely because it's the easiest way to carry on; we don't yet know what norms need shifting and how to do things better.
It’s for exactly this reason that most companies default to offering tangible perks like "smoothie Thursday" over developing intentional norms for an overall psychologically safe workplace.
What's a norm and how do they differ from perks?
I'm so glad you asked...
Perks are things like company-provided lunches and ergonomically sound chairs. They're typically tangible items that a company will offer over and above benefits, in an attempt to create a fun and exciting workplace.
Key word, "attempt."
Don’t get me wrong – those things are great – but perks do not define your company.
Behavioral norms define the majority of the employee experience
What really makes a difference in an employee's experience are the behavioral norms.
For example, meetings can be run in a variety of ways. Some are led by one voice while everyone else listens. Others prioritize hearing the thoughts and opinions of everyone in the room. Neither is right or wrong, but over time the structure of these meetings becomes a norm.
Now consider you’re an introvert trying to navigate a meeting where only the loudest voices get heard. It doesn’t take long to resign to the fact that your opinion will rarely be heard. Over time, this reality creates feelings of resentment. It starts to come across as playing favorites.
Were the extroverts in the meeting out to get the introvert? No, absolutely not! They were just functioning how they do best and that structure became the status quo.
How you run your meetings is a "culture point". It’s a specific set of actions and behaviors that highly impact an employee’s experience at the company. While the extroverted team members might thrive in this particular structure, the introverts are unintentionally being isolated.
This experience combined with hundreds of others, is what ultimately convinces an employee to stay or go.
It's usually unintentional
When that same introvert resigns six months after starting, their manager is baffled. What happened? Brad was doing such quality work. He was quiet, but he always got along with everyone. Why would he quit? While it’s not the only reason, those meetings played a large part in Brad’s decision to leave. Everyday, he felt like his ideas weren’t heard and that his full potential was being wasted.
Had the management team thought about their meeting structure and how it impacts different personality types, they may have intentionally chosen a different structure to slowly move towards. That small change might have made a world of difference to Brad and been the reason he decided to stay.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. I can’t make everyone happy all the time!
This isn’t about making everyone happy. It’s about being intentional.
It’s about assessing and acknowledging the behaviors throughout your company, so you can intentionally build the best experience possible for the right people. Don’t underestimate how much one small change can impact.
In our meeting example, taking a moment to call on specific people and ask for their feedback can help give them the floor. Or, follow up in your 1:1 to get direct feedback from them in a low-pressure setting. Either way, it's up to you to make sure everyone is – and feels – heard.
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To better workplaces and happier humans,