Monday, October 20, 2008

How Leaders Motivate Teams with Norms

He marched down the hall towards me. He wore a black suit, white shirt, and a gray tie that matched his silver hair. Oh no, I thought to myself, it's Mr. McNulty, the executive director of this entire YMCA. Ten yards from me, he stopped and bent down to pick up a candy wrapper that had escaped from a careless child in our youth department. He then dropped it into the trash bin next to the desk where I was checking children into their afternoon classes.

"You're Dave Jensen, aren’t you?" He barked.

"Yes sir," I stammered.

"I know it's your first day on the job and we’re happy to have you here." He stuck out his hand to shake mine. In a flash, he bolted through the glass doors and into the parking lot.

As I reflect on my first day on the job, one of the many lessons I learned about leadership at our local YMCA strikes me. Although it was the cleanest place that I ever worked, the leader never preached cleanliness. We just kept it immaculate because he did. The lesson of course is that the only way to create a positive culture with your team is to live it. The latest research tells us that Emerson was correct when he stated, "What you do thunders so loudly I can't hear what you say."

Nicole Brandon reported that researchers at the University of Bern in Switzerland trained rats to deliver food for one another by pulling a stick. (1) The researchers then divided the animals into two groups: some rats received food from other animals, whereas other rats did not. Researchers found that the rats that had received help were more likely to pull the stick for ‘unfamiliar’ animals (i.e., strangers). In other words, this was not the typical "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.” This was "if anyone scratches my back, I'll scratch someone else's back." Aristotle stated that children learn by imitation. So do people and rats (as well as people who are rats). Here's how you can create positive norms on your team, which leads to a culture of productivity, accountability, and results.

I recently facilitated an offsite meeting for group of mid-level managers in a public agency. My pre-work interviews indicated that they had a few dysfunctional norms that were lowering productivity and increasing turnover. To manage these issues, I recommended that we establish positive norms to create the culture she desired. The executive director agreed. Here's what we did during our half-day session.

1. Created a vision statement that everyone bought into. (It’s already on their stationary.)

2. Identified values that support the vision statement.

3. Brainstormed a list of the behaviors that they wanted to see in order to be sure that each value was alive and well on their team. To generate this list of specific behaviors, we brainstormed the answers to this question: imagine you're on a team that does (fill-in-the-blank with a value) well, what might that look like? What behaviors might you see?

4. The managers then took the values and norms to each of their own teams to be refined.

This is a simple, yet fundamental approach to creating a positive team culture. How surprised will you be when your team starts exhibiting the behaviors that lead to business results? Let me know what you think and how it goes.

Keep on eXpanding,


1. Nicole Branon: Pay It Forward, ‘Scientific American Mind,’ October/November page 9, 2007.

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