Assuming the Positive: Things to Consider About the Norming Process

It took me awhile to warm up to the concept of norming.  The whole process always felt a little too Kum-ba-ya to me.  To be honest, I still have that thought creep in sometimes when I think about it.  I can push it aside now, but my inner skeptic is surprised that I’m even writing this.

I think what stymied my connection to the norming process, was that I’d seen and experienced it done haphazardly. So, my view, initially, was that this was a lot of pageantry to make a group leader feel effective. I know why, now that I’m on the other end of things, these sessions didn’t work. They were one and done, poster on the wall, and then they were never spoken of again.

Norms work when there is a conscious effort to adhere to them, though they are not all created equal.  People can tend to either get dismissive or over-zealous when it comes to norming. Both are attitudes that when left unchecked can lead to useless norms.  But when it’s done well, they become a set of guideposts that allow team members to consistently reflect on how they operate individually and collectively.

Some things to remember about norms (in no way is this an exhaustive list):

  • Every group develops/maintains norms, even if they do not do so deliberately.

  • Consensus among team members will lead to more meaningful norms

  • There should be as few as possible.  Definitely no more than five. Three is a pretty good number, though some teams may even operate from one.  (Ex. Leave judgment at the door)

  • They should get to the heart of the matter. (Ex. The KIPP schools’ “Be Nice, Work Hard)

  • They must be meaningful and relevant and function toward team efficacy.

  • The time spent on the norming process should correlate to the time the group will be active.  (for 2-3 meetings, norming looks different than for a group meeting weekly for an entire year)

  • They are not rules, meaning they are not saddled with punishment when the norms are not kept.

  • They can be revised if the group is not satisfied with them.

I have a favorite norm.  It’s the same one that changed my views on norming.  Here it is: “Assume the positive.” Meaning, when collaborating, listening, etc. know that people are likely coming to the issue with good intentions and a hope to elevate the work they or the group are doing.  This norm does not mean that everything anyone suggests or does is acceptable to the work. What it does mean (to me at least) is that there is nothing to be gained by thinking the worst of people and their intentions.  I don’t know of anyone who entered education with the idea of damaging kids. It’s possible that there are some, but I would say that is a very exceptional situation. With that one norm, I can sideline the second-guessing of someone’s agenda, and focus on the work we do together.  It’s easy to slide into “judginess”. This one norm has since become a maxim for myself when I am in conversations or working with others in any capacity. It’s improved my work, and has helped me to build stronger trusting relationships more rapidly. And lastly, when a situation comes up when something discussed is not a positive thing for kids, I can talk through it more rationally with someone so that they do not feel personally attacked when their idea is well, not ideal.