What do you think would happen if you walked into a meeting wearing a clown costume? Or if you changed all of your computer notification sounds to cats meowing?
Even if these things aren’t explicitly against company policy, your teammates might still do a double take. That’s because of group norms—implicit ground rules that your team follows, even if you’ve never written them down. Group norms shape how the group behaves—including small details like commonly accepted dress codes.
Group norms are usually implied rather than defined, so you may have never thought of them before. By intentionally creating group norms, you can empower team collaboration, increase efficiency, and maximize effectiveness.
Group norms are the spoken or unspoken rules that guide how team members interact, collaborate effectively, and work efficiently. Usually, group norms aren’t written down. Instead, they’re implicitly agreed upon rules and standards of behavior, guided by the surrounding company culture ground rules. These implicit values inform and shape how team members make decisions, communicate at work, or even resolve conflicts.
Even if you’ve never consciously created group norms before, you’ve definitely experienced them. Every type of group—including friendship groups, informal groups, and working groups—has a set of norms that they create and refine over time even if they don’t realize it.
In this article, we’ll focus on working group norms to help you guide and shape your team’s norms. Unless you’re building a brand new group that’s never worked together before, you likely already have a few group norms in place—things like:
The communication or project management tools your group uses
How your group resolves conflicts or addresses setbacks
The way group members typically interact—whether that’s formally or informally
How acceptable it is for group members to be late to meetings
By clearly identifying and proactively shaping group norms, you can build and empower a high-performance team and take them to the next level.
Positive group norms give team members a sense of normalcy and stability in their day to day. Group norms create implicit (or defined) shared value systems, which help team members achieve their best work. By removing the doubt and stress that comes from uncertainty, group members can collaborate more effectively and make a bigger impact.
When team members have—and understand—group norms, they know what is expected of them, and they can execute accordingly. Just like knowing your project priorities helps you focus on your highest impact work, understanding your team’s expectations helps you collaborate most effectively.
Group norms also help team members spend their time more intentionally. Too often, our attention isn’t aligned with our intention—we spend so much time on work about work instead of our most important tasks. Group norms simplify meeting practices and communication preferences by clearly defining how team members should interact. Turning these implicit rules into explicit, team-wide policies reduces the guesswork of how team members should show up and increases effectiveness as a result.
Additionally, group norms also:
Create a sense of belonging among team members by empowering them to take part in decision making.
Increase trust, because everyone is on the same page about what’s happening and their role in it.
Boost teamwork by replacing uncertainty with predictability.
Group norms are the foundation for a healthy group—and great group dynamics.
Group dynamics describe the interactions, attitudes, and behaviors between a set of people who are working together.
Bruce Tuckman first described how groups are formed in his 1965 theory Tuckman's stages of group development. According to Tuckman, there are five stages of group development: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning or Mourning.
Groups naturally create their own norms during the Norming stage of group development. But without clear guidance and leadership, individual members will inevitably create their own group norms. By creating group norms up front, you can ensure group cohesion.Read: The secret to great group dynamics
Every team has unique group norms—and usually, teams won’t write them down. That being said, if your group were to write down a list of norms, here’s what you might write:
Every meeting has an associated meeting agenda, so team members can show up to meetings on time and prepared.
Team members communicate about work in shared tools like Asana and Slack so everyone has access to the information they need. The team prioritizes transparency, visibility, and group discussions whenever possible.
Team members share their priorities every Monday morning. If new work comes up, they’re empowered to adjust due dates to get their most important work done (while still keeping project deadlines or launches in mind). Work and projects are connected to individual KPIs or team and company OKRs to ensure team members understand and prioritize high-impact work.
Group members assume positive intent and lead with intentionality—if a disagreement does arise, they proactively address it with established conflict resolution strategies.
Group members do their best to ensure stakeholders are looped in early during the project process. Using RACI charts, they identify key stakeholders for their work and ensure everyone is on the same page.
Group leaders and team leads proactively allocate resources to reduce burnout and promote balance.
Group members stay up to date through project status updates, which are shared in a central source of truth like Asana.
Group norms are to teams as organizational culture is to companies. If you don’t intentionally create group norms, those norms will naturally develop over time—and not necessarily in the way you want them to.
Intentional group norms are a lot like great team-building activities: You need a strong leader to guide the group. To help you get there, we asked seven Asana team leads to tell us how they’ve created group norms over time. Here’s what they had to say.
We start our regular team meeting by checking in on how each team member is feeling through a red, yellow, green color—regardless of whether the source of how they are feeling is work or non-work related. This allows us to start the meeting with transparency and context, which helps improve how we communicate with and understand each other.
Leading with empathy and being real. Managers on the team lead by example by showing up to 1:1s and conversations in an empathetic way. During every conversation, managers strive to understand what’s happening in their team member’s lives.
Open discussion in team huddles every day. Our team has daily huddles to give updates on any bugs or issues customers are experiencing. These meetings are a pivotal part of our day—they bring the team together, allow us to share knowledge, and create space for connection.
Assuming good intent. On the User Operations team, we approach every interaction assuming good intent. This allows us to get the work done and reflect on what needs to happen in order to reach a resolution.
Safe silence in meetings. We try not to be afraid of silence. Sometimes people simply need a few extra seconds to get their thoughts and ideas straight or to muster the courage to speak up.
Active and respectful listening. We understand that interrupting others stifles conversation. We have a group norm of listening fully to people as they speak and share feedback or ideas.
We practice a culture of open and active feedback, especially during our design critique meetings. Team members can bring in a piece of work at any stage of the creative process and get support from their team. Creativity is difficult in a bubble—having a tradition of a standing design critique meeting creates a safe space for folks to bring their work in any state and get fresh ideas and feedback from others.
I schedule weekly team meetings to get focused on priorities, share updates, and solve problems in a collaborative way. If necessary, I also encourage the team to use this time to provide constructive feedback to teammates.
I also frequently reassign responsibilities and tasks based on each individual’s interest in the work involved. That way, each one of us can work on activities that are most interesting to us and stay motivated as a result.
A pillar of the team is Respect for others. As a result, we’ve built our relationship as a team and interact with other teams in a very respectful way. Doing so is key for building a healthy work environment.
On our team, we embrace Asana's value of being real with yourself and others. We've been building our team during this work from home period and have never met together in-person, so it's even more important that we ground ourselves in being authentic about what we may be tackling both in and out of work.
At the beginning of our weekly team syncs and all 1:1's I always start by asking "How are you doing?" or "How are you feeling?" instead of jumping straight into the agenda. It not only creates space for our team to share what they may be dealing with in their personal and professional roles, but also creates a safe environment and an ongoing dialogue that's not just about the tasks at hand.
We also strive for absolute clarity when it comes to defining when we are and aren't available. I have a toddler at home so oftentimes I will catch up on work after bedtime or on the weekends during naptime. I’ve made it clear to my team that, while these hours are the ones most suited for my work, I have no expectation that they are online and/or responding. It's critical that everyone is able to unplug.
By setting clear expectations and group norms around communication and response during off-hours, everyone can get the time to rest and recharge that they need without feeling pressured to be online because their manager is.
Slack norms after switching to remote work
When the team first went remote, there was suddenly a completely new way of working together to figure out, compounded by the fact that we also had new members on the team who didn't have existing strong relationships. Rather than enforcing existing rules, we approached it as a team exercise to share what we were worried about and what norms we wanted to establish as a team.
As an example, we decided that maintaining the feeling of being able to tap someone on the shoulder with a quick question was important—but also that protecting long stretches of focus and flow time was also important. As a team we decided that we were okay with biasing towards over-communication rather than under-communication, so we all agreed that Slacking anyone anytime was fine, with the understanding that each person would manage their own Slack notifications and may choose to respond at a time that was most convenient to them.Read: 6 tips to harness the power of flow state at work
Asking dumb questions
I've found that analysts produce higher quality work faster when they feel that they can ask for and get frequent input on their work from other analysts. While everyone on the Marketing Analytics team is very approachable and helpful, with all of us being remote—and many of the team being relatively new—it was often difficult for the team to feel comfortable asking each other questions, especially since they weren't always sure exactly who to ask. Asking in the team channel felt inappropriate and scary as we used that channel to make team announcements.
One of the analysts came up with a great idea: creating a safe space for questions by creating a Slack channel literally called “dumb questions.” In reality, most of our questions aren't dumb at all, but dedicating a space for "dumb questions" really helped people to get over that fear of being judged for their question. That, as well as having the more tenured analysts and myself modelling the behavior by asking our own "dumb" questions, really helped to establish that asking questions is always encouraged.
Clarity is the first step. Part of driving clarity includes helping team members set an “individual best” at something. My job is to encourage team members to see what they are capable of. Then, with that understanding, they have a clear vision for growth and how they can get there. From there, we can co-create how they can take the next step in that direction, and figure out how the Japan marketing team can support their growth.
Though group norms take time to build, investing in them is investing in your team. Clear group norms remove uncertainty and give team members clarity around what is expected of them. That way, everyone is set up for success and new members can hit the ground running on day one.
For more tips on how to empower your group and build great teamwork, read our article on 10 easy steps to boost team collaboration.