Social Norms and the Resilient Workplace

by Jillian Pedro
Sep. 24, 2020 | Back To Explore

Understanding human behavior in the workplace requires investigation into situational cues and social norms as well as motivations more deeply ingrained in the psyche, such as values or attitudes. The behavioral motivations that organizations have the most oversight of are social norms within their company culture. Understanding social norms and how they motivate human behavior should be a primary consideration for creating and adapting a workplace culture that keeps people healthy, prioritizes their wellbeing, and aligns with any other unique organizational values.

One of the most prominent questions being asked today is: what will become the “new norm” of the near and distant future? To answer that, we must first understand what the norms are.

Social Norms

Social norms are behaviors that represent the perception of what ought to be (injunctive norms), and the perception of what is (descriptive norms). Some norms are explicitly encouraged through policy and others form more organically as people respond to a social and physical environment that drive their behavioral responses. Both types of norms have significant impact on human behavior, and they can both form through explicit policy or organic human reaction. They can also complement or contradict each other. Appropriate behavior according to policy may be widely known, but if people witness others not complying, this descriptive norm may be a more influential motivator on how to behave. In some cases, a cross-norm inhibition effect can occur, meaning that violation of one norm can inhibit the influence of other norms. In a post-pandemic world, for example, witnessing others no longer maintain physical distancing could cause one to stop following recommendations for hand-sanitizing or other related behaviors.

In other cases, a boomerang effect can occur where one behaves in a manner opposite to the injunctive norm that is presented to them. For example, if an organization shows gratitude to individuals for an exemplary job following healthy protocols in an attempt to reinforce what one ought to be doing, it is possible that they will respond by no longer following those protocols because they gain a sense that they have ‘done their part’. It is important to consider how both types of norms can affect behavior to ensure interventions will have an impact that aligns with their intent.

New Norms

Together we can design a resilient workplace that enhances human wellbeing, productivity and core organizational values by understanding the best time and reasons to implement behavioral changes in the workplace.

There is a phenomenon called the Habit Discontinuity Hypothesis which states that behavior change is more effective during a change in context. Studies show that during a transition to a new job or when an entire office moves its location, people are more likely to adopt new habits. Sensitivity to new information is increased and this is thought to create more open-mindedness to change. The creation of a new norm in the workplace will start to happen immediately based on organic human reaction. Organizations must be prepared and take advantage of the opportunity to influence habit changes that support new social norms desired within their culture.

Working with workplace strategists and architectural designers to create company culture is nothing new. From spatial qualities that provide opportunities to engage or withdraw, furniture arrangements that encourage social interaction, those that provide privacy and discourage social interaction, and aesthetics that provide a sense of home to address work-life integration, designing one’s environment is an obvious way of cueing appropriate behavior.

However, managing change goes beyond a picture-perfect environment the day an organization moves in. For example, if part of the workplace is arranged in a way to encourage privacy and office protocols identify the area as a place for focused work but a few individuals start using it for collaboration, this “non-compliance” should be noted and addressed. This could mean environmental graphics that reinforce the intent of the space or redirect people to spaces that are designed to foster engagement and social connection. However, it could also mean needing to understand why this change of use has occurred and perhaps adapt the space to more fully support this new behavior. Listening to the workforce population that occupies the space is key to understanding what they need and what cues they may be getting, even unintentionally, from the design of the space.

With a better understanding of how social norms influence behavior, organizations can create and adapt to a new norm in the workplace. It’s critical to be aware of factors that influence the change and adoption of behaviors so we can formulate ways to align them and increase the success of any behavioral changes we wish to create. We must be prepared to act during this time of great change which is a window of opportunity to respond to the new needs of our workforce populations. In this unprecedented time with an unpredictable future, we must recognize norm-alternative behaviors in order to adapt to them or redirect them, productively. Together we can design a resilient workplace that enhances human wellbeing, productivity and core organizational values by understanding the best time and reasons to implement behavioral changes in the workplace.

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