What Are Norms and Why Do We Need Them?

Linda Belans, Ed.D.


Norms are community agreements. They can develop passively – family members regularly watching TV during dinner. Or actively – colleagues deciding to limit the use of technology during meetings. Each of these two examples offers a glimpse into family and workplace dynamics. One could surmise from the family example that they don’t take advantage of one of the few times they’re together to deepen their relationships with each other. And we could assume that the colleagues who decided not to surf the internet during meetings have made a mindful choice to give their attention to each other, to be fully present.

Norms, whether derived by default or by decision, reflect what we value. They have great impact on relationships and on business. When practiced regularly, norms find their way into the cultural DNA of families and organizations. It makes sense then to actively and intentionally create the culture we want to live and work in. This brings out the best in us, and ultimately creates an a sense of belonging that fosters creativity, rich thinking, and a collaborative culture.

When we come together to meet and get business done, we want to create a respectful sacred space where we identify and honor our values, manifest a fulfilling and mindful approach to work and life, and be fully present to possibilities.


How do we develop norms?

How do we develop group norms and how do we get everyone on the same norms page? It’s a question that assumes we’re looking for transformational, not just tactical change. We want to understand why we are creating norms. The tactic -- agreeing to limit electronic media during meetings, for example, is a transformational commitment to be fully present in order to listen, reflect, and respond. This helps participants look at each other when they’re speaking, to observe spoken and unspoken language. 

To develop norms together, we start with the assumption that people want to live and work in nourishing environments where they feel valued and their voices can be heard – where we can agree and disagree, and speak our truth respectfully, without penalty. We can begin our norms discussion with our team or group by acknowledging this, then we can ask:


How do we want to be present together in our meetings, and in the way we interact with each other?

What expectations do we have of each other during meetings and beyond?

What few things do we need to agree on to foster authentic conversations, to create a sense of belonging, to make sure that we’re all paying attention, and are respectful of each other’s ideas and styles so we can move the conversation forward? For example, can we agree that we will listen well and not interrupt? That to remain present, we will be low-tech? And so on. 


This can be a rich discussion during which the team’s or group's values emerge and become the focal point. It’s important that everyone feels comfortable with the norms they collectively create. Norms are dynamic and can be altered and added to along the way.


The National Equity Project has developed an encompassing set of norms:

  • Show up (or choose to be present. [This speaks to limiting screen use, for example.]

  • Pay Attention (to heart and meaning).

  • Tell the Truth (without blame or judgment)

  • Be Open to Outcome (not attached to outcome because it can change)


We always hope that at the end of a meeting people feel good about what happened and are energized to continue working toward commonly shared goals. This can happen when there are shared norms. Here are more examples: of norms:

  • Everyone has a piece of the Truth (gather perspectives)

  • See the higher self (accessing strengths bringing out the best in others, which brings out the best in ourselves).

  • We are all accountable to the norms.

Once you have agreed on your norms, it’s wise to begin meetings with members offering examples of what each norm might look or sound like in action.


At the meeting midpoint, ask for a quick check-in to determine if the team is living the norms, cite a couple of specific examples of how, and what they might need to adjust.


Repeat the process at the end of each meeting to make sure the team is actively honoring and adjusting. Norms are fluid and can change as the need arises.


As time progresses and the team has internalized the norms, these steps can be brief. Anyone, at anytime, can ask for a norms check.


The process of developing norms and living by them leads us through the arduous process of self-discovery and self-actualization as we become more authentic and daring. When meetings are sacred spaces, particularly when the organization’s business is people-centered, it becomes possible to intentionally live its mission and values, and advance its collective vision.


Author, States of Being: Leadership Coaching for Equitable Schools