Group Norms: 28 Examples & Overview

group norms examples and definition, explained below

Group norms are the unspoken or explicit rules that a group has for the acceptable behaviors, values, and beliefs of its members.

They create a structure that allows a group to function effectively, enabling cooperation, and minimizing conflict.

A group’s norms, often tied to the group’s unique identity, not only inform how individuals act within the group but also shape how the group interacts with the external world.

For example, in the workplace, team norms might include expectations that everyone contribute to brainstorming sessions and they may hold punctuality to meetings as highly valued.

Importantly, from a sociological perspective, any group’s norms can be both positive and negative, encouraging productive behaviors or fostering harmful ones. For example, the norms of countercultural groups or even corrupt institutions may cause harm, while the norms of well-functioning democratic institutions may underpin social order.

chrisComprehension Questions: As you read through this article, our editor Chris will pose comprehension and critical thinking questions to help you get the most out of this article. Teachers, if you assign this article for homework, have the students answer these questions at home, then use them as stimuli for in-class discussion.

Definition of Group Norms

The term ‘group norms’ refers to a set of expectations and rules that guide behaviors within a group and foster a sense of identity among its members.

They are seen as an integral part of social systems and are considered fundamental for maintaining order and consistency within any collective group, be it small or large.

Here are some clear scholarly definitions:

“Group norms define appropriate behavior for group members. They help the group operate more smoothly and create a distinctive group identity.” (Levi & Askay, 2020)

“Group norms refer to the behavioral rules of conduct expected of group members. Norms provide needed predictability for effective group functioning and make the group safe for its members.” (Arnold & Boggs, 2019)

Notice that in the above definitions, the follow-up explanations underpin why the norms exist, and what social function they serve (including underpinning shared identity and maintaining group safety).

Here’s a definition that takes another path, following-up with an explanation of how they’re established:

“Group norms specify what behaviors are acceptable—and unacceptable—in a group. Behavior that is viewed as appropriate by the team is reinforced, and behavior that is seen as unacceptable or inappropriate is sanctioned.” (Hackman, 2002)

From this decidedly behaviorist perspective, Hackman holds that group norms come into existence through a regime of reinforcements – both positive and negative – that compel group members to fall into line.

Group norms can dictate various group dynamics, from the broad scale like the group’s purpose and objectives, to the minutiae, like communication protocols, prosocial behaviors, or dress codes.

Violations of group norms can lead to penalties, which can be as subtle and informal as social ostracization and peer pressure, or as severe as legal action.

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Based on the above information, what key elements do you think need to be included in a good definition of group norms? Consider keywords like “behaviors”, “reinforcement”, and “acceptable”.

Group Norms: Examples in Workplace Teams

  1. Professional Dress Code: In many corporate workplaces, there exists an unspoken norm to wear formal attire. This norm represents professionalism and seriousness towards one’s work. Violation of this norm could potentially lead to reduced respect or reprimands from superiors. This norm also subtly influences the way employees carry themselves at the workplace.
  2. Workplace Meetings: In professional settings, it’s a norm to arrive on time for meetings. This adherence to time reflects respect for others’ schedules and commitment to the task at hand. Habitual latecomers may be viewed as unprofessional or unreliable.
  3. Professional Communication: In many workplaces, there are norms around how to communicate, like using professional language in emails and meetings. Such norms help maintain professionalism and respect. Non-compliance might result in misunderstandings, conflicts, or even disciplinary actions.
  4. Respecting Hierarchies: In many organizations, respecting the established hierarchy is a norm. This norm maintains the structure and order within the team and helps in effective decision-making. Violations could lead to disciplinary actions and affect team dynamics.
  5. Taking Turns in Speaking: In team meetings, it is often a norm to let one person speak at a time without interruption. This practice ensures that everyone’s opinions are heard and considered. Ignoring this norm can be considered rude or disrespectful.
chrisA Note on Group Brainstorming: The team activity of brainstorming – where groups put their minds together to identify possible ideas or solutions to a problem – has its own inherent set of group norms, as defined by the concept’s founder, Alex F. Osbornn. To learn about norms in brainstorming sessions, read my article on brainstorming.
  1. Sharing Workload Equitably: In project teams, sharing the workload equitably is a norm. This practice fosters a sense of fairness and teamwork, encouraging mutual support. Not adhering to this norm can lead to conflicts and decreased team morale.
  2. Keeping Shared Spaces Clean: In shared office spaces, it’s a norm to clean up after oneself. This rule helps maintain a clean and organized workspace for everyone. Neglecting this responsibility may lead to conflicts and affect the team’s morale.
  3. Punctuality: In many professional environments, it’s a norm to be punctual for meetings, deadlines, and work hours. This adherence to time shows respect for others’ schedules and commitment to work. Constant tardiness might be viewed as unprofessional or disrespectful.
  4. Maintaining Confidentiality: In workplaces dealing with sensitive information, maintaining confidentiality is a norm. This practice protects the interests of the organization and its clients. Breaching this norm can lead to serious legal consequences.
  5. Constructive Feedback: In many work teams, giving and receiving constructive feedback is a norm. This practice promotes personal growth and continual improvement. Avoiding or mishandling feedback can hinder team progress and personal development.
  6. Avoiding Gossip: Avoiding office gossip is a norm in many professional settings. This promotes a positive work environment and reduces unnecessary conflicts. Engaging in gossip could lead to disciplinary actions and harm interpersonal relationships.
  7. Recognition of Team Achievements: In high-performing teams, it’s a norm to acknowledge and celebrate team successes. This reinforces a positive work culture and boosts team morale. Ignoring team achievements can lead to dissatisfaction and decrease motivation.
chrisComprehension Checkpoint: If you were a manager or supervisor and set out to consciously create a set of group norms for your workplace, which norms would you consider to be most important? Consider norms that will ensure the group is productive, has high expectations, and ensure it’s inclusive of all members’ thoughts and ideas.

Group Norms: Examples in Society

  1. Classroom Etiquette: In a classroom setting, it’s a norm for students to raise their hands before speaking. This practice ensures order and gives everyone an equal chance to contribute without talking over each other. Not following this norm may result in being reprimanded by the teacher or ignored by peers.
  2. Family Dinner: Many families have a norm to gather for a communal dinner every evening. This norm strengthens familial bonds and ensures quality time is spent together. Breaking this norm could lead to feelings of isolation or misunderstanding.
  3. Silence in Libraries: Libraries globally enforce the norm of maintaining silence. This enables an environment conducive to study, research, and reading. Violations, such as loud conversations or phone calls, may result in ejection from the library or other penalties.
  4. Online Etiquette: In online gaming communities, it’s often a norm not to use offensive language. Such a rule ensures a friendly and respectful environment for all players. Failure to adhere to this norm can result in bans or ostracization from the group.
  5. Recycling: In many environmentally conscious communities, recycling is a norm. This practice highlights a shared value of environmental sustainability. Failure to recycle might invite criticism or social pressure from the community.
chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Would you consider a group norm to be the same as a social norm? How might they be similar, and how are they different? To answer this question, you may wish to consult my articles on social norms and cultural norms.
  1. Tipping: In the United States, tipping service workers is a societal norm (see: American taboos). The practice reflects an appreciation for the service provided. Not adhering to this norm is often considered rude and disrespectful.
  2. Public Transit Etiquette: In public transport, it’s a norm to offer your seat to the elderly, pregnant women, or the disabled. This act of courtesy is generally appreciated and expected by fellow passengers. Non-compliance could invite disapproving looks or comments.
  3. Cultural Greetings: In Japan, it’s customary to bow when greeting. This norm reflects respect for the other person. Not following this practice can be perceived as disrespectful.
  4. Queuing: In many societies, it’s a norm to form a line while waiting for a service. This maintains order and fairness. Those who violate this norm by cutting in line may face social disapproval or reprimand.
  5. Academic Honesty: In academic institutions, adhering to principles of academic honesty is a norm. This practice encourages original work and intellectual integrity. Violations, like plagiarism, can lead to severe penalties, including expulsion.
  6. Celebration of National Holidays: In many countries, celebrating national holidays is a societal norm. Such celebrations foster patriotism and unity among citizens. Non-participation may be interpreted as apathy or disrespect towards the nation’s values.
  7. Avoiding Spoilers: In fan communities, it’s a norm not to reveal spoilers about a newly released book, movie, or series episode. This norm ensures everyone can enjoy the content without unwanted revelations. Violating this norm may result in social backlash.
  8. Gender Norms: Traditional gender roles, though increasingly challenged, are norms in many societies. They influence expectations about behavior, dress, and responsibilities based on one’s sex. Non-compliance can sometimes invite scrutiny or discrimination.
  9. Privacy Norms: Respecting others’ privacy is a societal norm, especially in Western societies. This norm acknowledges individuals’ right to private space and personal affairs. Intrusion into one’s privacy is generally regarded as inappropriate and disrespectful.
  10. Fair Play in Sports: In sports communities, adhering to the rules of the game and maintaining sportsmanship is a norm. These values ensure fair competition and mutual respect. Cheating or unsporting behavior is usually met with penalties and social disapproval.
  11. Volunteering: In many service clubs or community groups, volunteering for social causes is a norm. This practice reflects the group’s altruistic values. Non-participation may be viewed as lack of commitment to the group’s mission.
chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Several of the above group norms relate to educational settings. Imagine you’re doing groupwork in school or university, in a group of 4 people. What norms would you set in place in your first meeting in order to maximize your chances of getting a top grade? 

The Four Types of Group Norms

In their work on Working in Groups, Engleberg and Winn (2021) propose four types of group norms. This helps us to identify and classify and explore the various norms in our own groups, workplaces, and teams.

Often, teachers or managers will ask their students/teams to consider each category and write down norms from their own teams that would fit into each classification:

  1. Interaction Norms: These norms govern the mode and manner of communication within a group. They dictate the extent of individual participation in group discussions and set expectations for speaking turns. For instance, it could be a norm that everyone in the group is allowed to voice their opinions on every topic, and there might be unspoken limits on the duration of each individual’s speech.
  2. Procedure-Oriented Norms: These norms define the operational rules and rituals of a group. They might encompass the scheduling of group meetings, the order of speaking during these meetings, and the responsibility of maintaining and distributing minutes of the meetings. These norms provide structure and predictability to group interactions.
  3. Status Norms: These norms reflect the power dynamics and influence hierarchy within the group. They indicate who holds the authority to make key decisions, such as concluding a group discussion. They also guide how leadership roles or official positions within the group are selected or elected.
  4. Achievement Norms: These norms set the standards of performance and productivity for the group. They may establish expectations for referencing authoritative sources during group presentations or set deadlines for task completion. These norms also determine the consequences for not meeting the group’s performance standards, such as delivering tasks late or not completing them at all.
chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Consider one of the groups in which you belong (e.g. workplace, school, online, family, church, etc.) and try to list some implicit or explicit group norms that fit into each of the above four categories.

Group Norms in Sociology

Sociologists have long studied how group norms are created, propagated, maintained, and changed within different societal contexts.

Early sociologist Émile Durkheim argued that social norms are a fundamental part of a functioning society, and violations (which he termed ‘anomie‘) lead to social instability. For functionalists like Durkheim, group norms serve a social function, which is to maintain order and stability within groups.

Similarly, famed sociologist Max Weber argued that group norms are essential in large bureaucracies, enabling societies to develop enormous and sophisticated institutions such as government departments and multinational corporations.

Later, many scholars turned their eye to how group norms are formed. Below are some important contributors:

  • The ‘Social Norms Theory’ by Wesley Perkins and Alan Berkowitz emphasizes how perceptions of normative behavior can influence individuals’ choices and actions (this is a classic example of socialization).
  • Additionally, Erving Goffman’s ‘dramaturgical analysis’ provides insight into how individuals play roles and adhere to group norms in everyday life.
  • Similarly, Herbert Hyman’s ‘reference group theory‘ also contributes to understanding the influence of group norms as it discusses how people’s decisions and behaviors are affected by the norms of groups they aspire to join.

Other scholars find issue with group norms, though. They argue that norms can blind us, lead us down paths where our morals are outsourced to the group (in a process called deindividuation), and lead to marginalization and oppression.

While a full discussion of such theories is outside the scope of this article, a good place to start exploring the negative ramifications of group norms, read my article on Irving Janis’ theory of ‘groupthink‘, which illustrates how group norms can sometimes discourage creativity and individual responsibility, leading to sub-optimal decision-making.

Conclusion

Group norms are essential for establishing order and expectations within a group. They can lead to higher productivity, high expectations for all, and a shared sense of identity. But they also exist in countercultural, subcultural, and antisocial groups, whereby the norms encourage group members to engage in socially deviant behaviors. So, group norms are not necessarily good or bad; rather, it’s the culture of the group that establishes what the norms will be, and whether these norms will lead us all to self-betterment and a better society, or down a more destructive path.

References

Arnold, E. C., & Boggs, K. U. (2019). Interpersonal relationships e-book: professional communication skills for nurses. New York: Elsevier Health Sciences.

Engleberg, I.N., & Wynn, D. R. (2013). Working in groups (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson

Hackman, J. R. (2002). Leading teams: Setting the stage for great performances. Harvard: Harvard Business Press.

Levi, D., & Askay, D. A. (2020). Group dynamics for teams . New York: Sage Publications.

Chris
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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