Exploring Social Norms…or How I Failed in ROTC (part 1)

Adam Burton, Connecting People & Dots, Enterprise Social Media, Evangelist

Adam Burton

In college, I took advantage of a number of classes offered by the campus ROTC program. They had excellent courses in military history and leadership. It exposed me to a world I knew very little about. Another benefit was it allowed me to participate in various ROTC activities, like rappelling down towers, PT (physical training), D&C (drill and ceremony) while experiencing the camaraderie of a close knit group.

Even though they were welcoming, I was not an actual cadet. So while others were contracted to the Army post-college, I was not. If you are interested, you can re-create my ROTC experience for yourself at home. Get up at 4:30 in the morning, put on a 30 pound ruck sack and start marching. To get the full effect, have someone scream “your other left!” at you every so often. (My sense of direction is still terrible!)

One day, we were doing some team-building exercises. You know, the kind of thing where the whole team has to come together and figure out some puzzle. One of the exercises was to get your team and “equipment” across a “river.” In team building circles, this one is called “crossing the river” (You can get a flavor of it below.)

Basically, you have a bunch of people and stuff (like boards and boxes) on one side of some marked off space (the imaginary river). You have to move your stuff and your team to the other side. No person can touch the “river” (otherwise known as the gymnasium floor). You get points for stuff and team members that make it to the other side. We were competing against other teams for points.

The trick here – which we quickly figured out – was to use the “equipment” to build a bridge across the river. You can then walk across the boards and boxes without touching the floor/river. As time was running out, there was an excited crowd of six cadets cheering safely from “shore” as the last man was trying to cross. He was balancing on a very thin board trying his best to wobble to safety.

But I knew he wasn’t going to make it. And because of that, we were going to lose the game. So I did what I had to do…which is what I assumed was the point of the exercise. I reached out and yanked the board right from underneath him. He never saw it coming. One second, he was balanced precariously on a board; the next second, he was crashing to the gym floor. I held the board in my hand, safely on “shore”, knowing that the extra point gave us the win. The entire gym was completely silent as I screamed, “We won!” They were stunned by what they just witnessed.

At that point, the Sergeant pulled me aside and suggested, “Perhaps you should go change now.” After a short hazing period and narrowly escaping death by blunt force trauma, I realized my mistake. The point was not to win at all costs, but to follow the ROE (rules of engagement), build trust within team and come together towards common purpose. No wonder they were shocked.

Looking back now, I see a larger organizational lesson which still applies today. The fact is, it never occurred to them that someone would do what I did. No one would push a team member into the river – in front of everyone – steal the board they were standing on to score a cheap win?!? For them, they had an entire culture and reinforcement mechanism that should have prevented my over-eager action. Of course the “puzzle” had rules which I followed. But they were relying on an ethos and normative structure to enforce unwritten rules. Rules, which outsiders like myself, could not know.

Now imagine your own organization.

What are the implicit rules that govern behavior? What are the cultural norms that reinforce the behavior you want or encourage the behavior you don’t? When you look at great organizations, they all have a set of beliefs that permeate everything they do. Apple doesn’t just have a great design process…design is who Apple is. Michael Loop gave a great panel entitled Great Design Hurts where he makes the same point a slightly different way.

The research on social norms would fill an Encyclopedia Britannica – if they still sold them. For those interested in a wide view of the prevailing thinking, I highly recommend Theories of Social Order: A Reader published by Stanford in 2009. It is an edited collection that has a great breakdown of research on motives, group behavior, bias, and trust.

When I say social norms, I’m really not talking about the obvious things like schedules, language or dress code. I’m talking about norms that force your employees to behave according to unwritten rules you may not even know about. These norms are reinforced every day through hundreds of tiny interactions. Social norms guide your company much more than guidelines, standards or even laws. It’s kind of like a meeting I once had with an executive where he said, “We don’t have a business architecture.” My reply was, “Oh you have one alright! You just don’t know what it is. And it’s running your company right now.”

What are your social norms? Are big ideas encouraged? Do questions draw unwanted attention? Does team size have a natural asymptote? How is whistle-blowing viewed? How important is geography within the offices? Are your virtual communities run by cliques? Are standards meant to be followed? Are meetings supposed to be organized or free-wheeling?

Virtual interactions also rely on social norms to guide virtual behavior. However, violating these can have an impact just as real as violating social norms in “the real world.” Just because your employees can log-in, doesn’t mean they can join in. There’s a difference.

Kipling Williams of Purdue University did an interesting study in 2003 with people playing “Cyberball.” Cyberball is a made-up online game with no real winner where people pass a virtual ball around. During one experiment, a person was selected to never receive the ball. Even when this person was told beforehand, that it was just a computer program following a script, they still felt ostracism and lower levels of belonging and self-esteem. If a computer program passing a virtual ball in a pre-defined pattern, around a made-up game, where no one loses, can trigger these feelings, imagine what your work environment could do to them.

In fact, Facebook – the largest virtual community on Earth – struggled against its own norms when it started allowing corporations to create accounts. Corporations, like me in ROTC, were caught unaware of the existing norms and created a lot of self-inflicted problems for themselves. In 2008, just after Facebook started this, Dr. Mihaela Vorvoreanu (@mihaela_v) published her findings in The Journal of New Communications Research. Facebook had existing social norms around “hanging out” and sharing personal information. Small companies and non-profits benefited from this because their content was highly personal. Big corporations focused on branding, impersonal campaigns for “likes” and shared nothing intimate. They stood out like a tourist, an unwelcome tourist.

In the posts to follow, I want to continue to talk about different aspects of social norms. First, social interactions can be incredibly subtle. Second, norms can be created unintentionally and often in ways that harm the larger organization. Lastly, I want to discuss some success stories of organizations transforming themselves by utilizing the power of social norms.

Andy is a Social Business researcher, advisor and public speaker. During the last 19 years he has served as a trusted advisor for several leading organizations including Andersen, Ernst & Young, JP Morgan Chase and Oracle. He is a career long student of enterprise communication and collaboration. He has both written for, and been written about, in Forbes and The Huffington Post. Andy is a frequent conference speaker and an avid road cyclist. He enjoys connecting people and dots.

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