The Normalization of Deviance Could Be Hurting Your Team
In a company where I once worked, a team was charged with developing a major new system. The project slipped and then slipped again. And again. Each time it slipped, a new due date was announced. No one seemed overly perturbed at these repeatedly revised deadlines. If not this month, then next would be fine. And if not this year, there’s always next year. At least, that was my view, as someone who wasn’t involved in the project and not privy to management grumblings about it.
I recently encountered the term “normalization of deviance,” and it seems like an apt description of the deadline-revising I observed. Normalization of deviance refers to becoming blasé about counterproductive behavior or activities. The concept applies in particular to processes that become ingrained in a team or organization even though they contribute to negative outcomes. Employees become so accustomed to the deviance that, to them, it appears perfectly normal. By contrast, people outside the organization can quickly recognize the problem.
It may not be fair of me to describe the revised deadlines I described above as the normalization of deviance, considering I had no firsthand knowledge of what was transpiring. However, this was an organization in which deadlines slipped regularly. And while there were some muttering and handwringing among IT personnel and more than ample discontent among our customers, no attention seemed to be focused on how to prevent more of the same happening on the next project. This abnormality was a normal part of the culture.
I suspect there are situations in most organizations in which the norm—how things ought to be done—becomes overlooked, dismissed, or ignored, despite clear evidence of the damage done by the deviance. And when it happens, often as a result of taking shortcuts, those who contribute to the deviance rationalize it as being necessary due to time pressures, changing priorities, or mounting stress.
It might be worth examining situations in which your team deviated from its own best practices in the interests of “getting it done” and, as a result, faced serious or potentially serious consequences. These consequences could arise, for example, in the form of excessive turnover, conflicts among team members, a withholding of mistakes, missed bugs, or, as in the situation I observed, the need to constantly revise deadlines.
The first time any such situation happens, it’s an isolated case. When it becomes a pattern, and when you can readily justify or rationalize the behavior despite negative outcomes, it bears looking into.