Chapter 2: Groups In Organizations

2.4 Group Norms & Ground Rules


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Learning Objectives

  1. Distinguish between group norms and ground rules
  2. Create ground rules
  3. Explain how to change future ineffective norms.


A new vice president came into an organization. At the end of her first weekly meeting with her staff members, she tossed a nerf ball to one of them and asked the person to say how she was feeling. When that person finished, the vice president asked her to toss the ball to someone else, and so on, until everyone had expressed himself or herself. This process soon became a regular feature of the group’s meetings.

In our earlier section on group life cycles, you learned about Bruce Tuckman’s model of forming, storming, norming, and performing. Along with roles, status, and trust, which we’ll encounter in the next chapter, norms are usually generated and adopted after a group’s “forming” and “storming” stages.

As a group moves from “forming” toward “performing,” then, norms help guide its members along the way. Whether we see them or not, norms are powerful predictors of a group’s behavior.

What Norms Are?

Group norms are informal expectations about of how group members should act and interact. They identify what behaviors are acceptable or not; good or not; right or not; or appropriate or not (O’Hair & Wieman, p. 19). 

Norms may relate to how people look, behave, or communicate with each other. Tossing a nerf ball around a circle of workers is perhaps a peculiar way to start a meeting, and it probably doesn’t contribute directly to achieving substantive goals, but it did represent a norm in the vice president’s group we described—which, by the way, was a real group and not a product of imagination!

Some norms relate to how a group as a whole will act—e.g., when and how often it will meet, for instance. Others have to do with the behavior of individual group members and the roles those members play within the group.

By identifying what social behavior lies within acceptable boundaries, norms can help a group function smoothly and face conflict without falling apart (Hayes, p. 31). Thus, they can constitute a potent force to promote positive interaction among group members.

Origin of Norms

In a new group, norms organically as members settle into their relationships and start to function together. People often assume that certain norms exist and accept them “by unspoken consent” (Galanes & Adams, p. 162), in which case they are implicit norms.

Consider “same seat syndrome,” for example. How often have you found that people in a college classroom seem to gravitate every day to exactly the same chairs they’ve always sat in? Nobody says, “Hey, I’ve decided that this will be my chair forever” or “I see that that’s your territory, so I’ll never sit there,” do they?

Often norms are difficult for group members to express in words. What topics are okay or not okay to talk about during informal “chit-chat” may be a matter of unstated intuition rather than something that people can readily describe. Nevertheless, implicit norms may be extremely powerful, and even large groups are apt to have at least some implicit norms.

The cultural background each member brings to a group may lie beneath conscious awareness, yet it may exert a powerful influence on both that person’s and the group’s behavior and expectations. Just as a fish is unaware that it lives in water, a person may easily go through life and participate in group interactions without perceiving that he or she is the product of a culture.

Ground rules

As a group begins to go about their assigned work, it is important that the members discuss explicitly discuss their expectations, and create a set of group ground rules.  Ground rules are explicit, agreed-on description of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Group ground rules are analogous to an organizations’ set of policies and procedure: they identify how members should act. For example, an organization may have a workplace policy involving wearing a uniform or answering the telephone in a certain way. For groups, it is important for groups to create their own set of expectations (i.e. ground rules). The creation of ground rules performs the following important functions:

  1. Help groups  keep order so that meaningful work can be accomplished,
  2. Identify what the group values, wants and needs,
  3. Promotes effective communication via shared expectations

Manuals, and even books, have been composed to provide members of groups with guidelines of how to behave. A manager in one organization we know wrote a policy in response to almost every problem or difficulty his division experienced. Because the manager served for more than 15 years in his position, the collection of these incident-based policies eventually filled a large tabbed binder. The bigger the group, the more likely it is that its norms will be rigid and explicit like these (Lamberton, L., & Minor-Evans, L., 2002).

Interaction, Procedure, Status, and Achievement Ground Rules

Ground rules can relate to 4 aspects of group work: interaction, procedure, status, and achievement (Engleberg & Wynn, p. 37). Let’s look at each of these kinds of norms.

Interaction ground rules specify how people communicate in the group. Is it expected that everyone in the group should have an opportunity to speak about any topic that the group deals with? How long is it okay for one person to speak? Are political jokes ok? What are expectations regarding how we communicate disagreement?

Procedure-oriented ground rules identify how the group functions. Does it hold meetings according to an established schedule? Who speaks first when the group gets together? Does someone distribute a written record of what happened after every time the group gets together?

Status ground rules indicate the degree of influence that members possess and how that influence is obtained and expressed. Who decides when a group discussion has concluded? When and how are officers for the group elected?

Achievement ground rules relate to standards the group sets for the nature and amount of its work. Must members cite readings or the comments of authorities when they make presentations to the group? What happens to a group member who completes tasks late or fails to complete them at all?

Creating Effective Ground Rules

When groups go about the business of creating ground rules, they should use the following guidelines:

  1. Ground rules should be created by the group members. Even though there are manuals and lists of ground rules that abound, effective group ground rules reflect the uniqueness of each group. Members might suggest ground rules that worked in another  group, but each group has its own personality based on the memberships. There is no one size fits all list of ground rules. They should be discussed and agreed upon by the group members.
  2. Ground rules should be sufficient but not excessive. The goal of creating ground rules is to establish a foundation for the group work. Things will emerge, unplanned situations will arise. You cannot predict everything that might happen during the course of your group work, and that’s not the goal of creating ground rules. A group’s ground rules should sufficiently address the 4 aspects of group work identified above, but be succinct enough so that the members can remember the ground rules as they go about the group’s work. So what does this mean? Well, having 2-3 ground rules isnt sufficient, and having 8+ ground rules is probably too excessive.
  3.  Ground rules should use concrete, measurable language. It is important to remember that everyone doesnt interpret words like “on time”, “contribution” or “effective” in the same way. Misunderstandings and those dreaded group experiences many of us have had can often times be traced back to differences in how people interpret expectations. Good ground rules are concrete and measurable. Everyone knows if a ground rule has been followed or not. Below are some examples of ineffective and effective ground rule statements:
Ineffective Ground Rule Effective Ground Rule
Meeting will start on time Meetings will start within 5 minutes of the established meeting time.
Everyone will contribute to the project. Members will provide at leas one piece of new research during each meeting.
Members will interact via email. Members are expected to check their emails daily, and respond to a group discussion within 24 hours of it’s initiation.

While some of you may be reading these statements and thinking to yourself, “Really?? We know what to do to be effective group members”, I can tell you from my 20+ years in academia that what we think is “common sense” is not so common. What it means to be “respectful” varies. Your group doesnt need to try to document all the behaviors that qualify as “respectful”, but have a conversation about the concept and identify what respectful might look like to your group members (e.g., “Members will be respectful and not interrupt one another.”)

Even when groups establish effective ground rules at the start of their work, norms will continue to emerge. It is important for group members to identify emergent norms, and consider whether a new ground rule needs to be established.

Responding to Emerging Group Norms

What does it mean to you if you say something is “normal”? Probably it means that you feel it’s usual and right—correct? Part of your reaction to something you consider “normal,” therefore, is likely to be a sense of comfort and assurance. Furthermore, you wouldn’t want to intentionally engage in or be around someone who engages in behavior which you don’t consider to be normal. The term for such behavior is, after all, “abnormal.” Consider the following example:

In a large organization , a male colleague told a joke while he and some other employees waited for a staff meeting to start. In the joke, a man who thought he had cleverly avoided being executed found that he had been outsmarted and was going to be raped instead. The people who heard the joke laughed, work-related topics came up, and the staff meeting commenced.

Sometimes differences of opinion in groups deal with inconsequential topics or norms and therefore cause no difficulty for anyone. Who cares, for instance, whether people bring coffee with them to morning meetings or not, or whether they wear bright-colored articles of clothing?

Up to a certain point, we all tend to accommodate differences between ourselves and others on a daily basis without giving it a second thought. We may even pride ourselves on our tolerance when we accept those differences.

On the other hand, we know that things which are customary aren’t always right. Slavery was once considered normal throughout the world, for instance, and so was child labor. Obviously, we may find it challenging to confront norms that differ significantly from our personal beliefs and values.

Think back to the story about the colleague at the staff meeting. Evidently, he thought that the norms of the organization permitted him to tell his joke. When his fellow employees laughed, he probably also assumed that they found the joke to be amusing.

After the meeting, however, as four or five people lingered in the room, one of the female staffers spoke. “It’s really hard for me to say this,” she said, “but I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t tell jokes about rape.”

The woman who expressed herself to the group made clear that she felt its norms needed to be changed if jokes about rape were considered acceptable. The woman was right in two respects. First, rape is no laughing matter, and a group norm which condones jokes about it ought to be rejected. Second, when she told her colleagues “It’s really hard for me to say this,” she illustrated that it’s difficult to confront other people to propose that they change the norms they operate under.

In this case, one group member submitted a polite request to her fellow group members. As it turned out, those members accepted her request. The man who told the joke apologized, and to our knowledge no more jokes about rape were told in the group.

Things aren’t always this straightforward, though. Therefore, adopting a systematic approach may prepare you for the wide-ranging situations in which you or your fellow group members want to change your norms. What principles and behaviors, then, should you follow if you feel a group norm is ineffective, inappropriate, or wrong?

Lamberton and Minor-Evans (pp. 226–227)Lamberton, L., & Minor-Evans, L. (2002). Human relations: Strategies for success (2nd ed.). New York: Glencoe McGraw-Hill. recommend that you follow these steps:

  1. Confirm whether everyone in the group agrees on the purpose of the group. Different norms will arise from different assumptions about the group’s purpose and will fit the different assumptions on which they are based. Misunderstandings or disagreements about the purpose of the group need to be identified and worked through.
  2. See if other people’s understanding of the group’s current norms is the same as yours. Again, it’s important to know whether other members of the group agree on what norms the group actually has.

    Remember the examples at the beginning of this section, in which a small daughter thought that holding hands before dinner was a time for silent counting and a man thought it was okay to bring charts and graphs to a social occasion? They illustrate that it’s possible to completely misconstrue a group norm even in close, ongoing relationships and at any age.

  3. Explain to the group why you feel a particular norm ought to be changed.
  4. Offer a plan for changing the norm, including a replacement for it which you feel will be better, drawing upon the full potential of each member.
  5. If necessary, change the composition and role assignments of the group.

Key Takeaways

  • Group norms and ground rules affect almost all aspects of a group’s activities.
  • It is important for new groups to spend time creating ground rules.
  • Even groups who create ground rules will need to continue to monitor the patterns of behaviors (i.e., norms) that emerge throughout their group work.
  • When a destructive or ineffective norm emerges, group members should address this concern so that the group can continue their work in a productive environment.



  1. Think of an unusual norm you’ve encountered in a group you were part of. Do you know how and from whom it originated? If not, what is your speculation about its origin?
  2. Identify an implicit norm in a group you were part of. Would it have been a good idea to make the norm explicit instead? Why or why not?
  3. Describe a group ground rule you’ve experienced that dealt with either interaction, procedure, status, or achievement.
  4. Identify two norms that you’ve encountered in a group setting. Did you observe the norms being enforced in some way? If so, what kind of enforcement was employed, and by whom?
  5. Describe a time when you were part of a group and believed that one of its norms needed to be changed. What made you feel that way? Was your view shared by anyone else in the group?
  6. What steps have you taken to challenge a group norm? How did the other members of the group respond to your challenge? If you had a chance to go back and relive the situation, what if anything would you change about your actions? (If you don’t recall ever having challenged a group norm, describe a situation in which someone else did so).

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