4 Establishing and Maintaining Group Norms

Learning Objectives

  • Define norms
  • Describe the characteristics and functions of norms within groups and teams
  • Describe the process of group member socialization
  • Discuss why someone might conform to or resist group norms

Every group in which we participate has a set of norms, or ground rules for how group members should act or behave. Each group’s rules and norms are different, and we must learn them to be effective participants. Some groups formalize their norms and rules, while others are less formal and more fluid. Norms are the recognized rules of behavior for group members. Norms influence the ways we communicate with other members, and ultimately, the outcome of group participation. Norms are important because, as we highlighted in the “norming” stage of group development, they are the defining characteristics of groups.  In this chapter, we will highlight several of the essential aspects of norms and how they relate to people in groups or teams. We will also consider the characteristics and functions of group norms, the process of learning group norms, as well as conformity with and deviance from them.

Defining Norms in Groups

Because people in groups come together for a specific purpose, they develop shared norms to help them achieve their goals. Even with a goal in place, random interaction does not define a group. Group interaction is generally guided by norms a group has established for acceptable behavior. Norms are essentially expectations of the group members, established by the group, and can be conscious and formal, or unconscious and informal. A couple of examples of group norms include the expectation that all members show up at group meeting times, the expectation that all group members focus on the group instead of personal matters (for example, turning cell phones and other distractions off), and the expectation that group members finish their part of the work by the established due date. When members of the group violate group norms, other members of the group get frustrated and the group’s overall goal may be affected.

A hand holding a phone
An example of a norm could be to not to be on your phone during meetings. (Credit: Alex Ware/Unsplash)

Brilhart and Galanes (1998) divide norms into two categories. General norms “direct the behavior of the group as a whole” (130). Meeting times, how meetings run, and the division of tasks are all examples of general norms that groups form and maintain. These norms establish the generally accepted rules of behavior for all group members. The second category of norms is role-specific norms. Role-specific norms “concern individual members with particular roles, such as the designated leader” (130). Not only are there norms that apply to all members of a group, but there are also norms that influence the behaviors of each role. When norms are violated, group members most often will work to correct the violation to get the group back on task and functioning properly. Have you ever been in a group in which a particular group member did not do the task that was assigned to them? What happened? How did the group handle this situation as a whole? What was the response of the person who did not complete the task? In hindsight, would you have handled it differently? If so, how?

Characteristics of Group Norms

work group norm may be defined as a standard that is shared by group members and regulates member behavior within a group or organization. An example can be seen in a typical classroom situation when students develop a norm against speaking up in class too often. It is believed that students who are highly visible improve their grades at the expense of others. Hence, a norm is created that attempts to govern acceptable classroom behavior. We see similar examples in the workplace. There may be a norm against producing too much or too little, against getting too close to the supervisor, against being late for work, and so forth. According to Hackman (1996), workgroup norms may be characterized by at least five factors:

  1. Norms summarize and simplify group influence processes. They denote the processes by which groups regulate and regularize member behavior.
  2. Norms apply only to behavior, not to private thoughts and feelings. Although norms may be based on thoughts and feelings, they cannot govern them. That is, private acceptance of group norms is unnecessary—only public compliance is needed.
  3. Norms are generally developed only for behaviors that are viewed as important by most group members.
  4. Norms usually develop gradually, but the process can be quickened if members wish. Norms usually are developed by group members as the need arises, such as when a situation occurs that requires new ground rules for members to protect group integrity.
  5. All norms do not apply to all members. Some norms, for example, apply only to young initiates (such as getting the coffee), whereas others are based on seniority, sex, race, or economic class.

Functions of Group Norms

Most all groups have norms, although some may be more extensive than others. To see this, examine the norms that exist in the various groups to which you belong. Which groups have more fully developed norms? Why? What functions do these norms serve? Several efforts have been made to answer this question. In general, workgroup norms serve four functions in organizational settings (Feldman, 1984):

  1. Norms facilitate group survival. When a group is under threat, norms provide a basis for ensuring goal-directed behavior and rejecting deviant behavior that is not purposeful to the group. This is essentially a “circle the wagons” phenomenon.
  2. Norms simplify expected behaviors. Norms tell group members what is expected of them—what is acceptable and unacceptable—and allow members to anticipate the behaviors of their fellow group members and to anticipate the positive or negative consequences of their own behavior.
  3. Norms help avoid embarrassing situations. By identifying acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, norms tell group members when a behavior or topic is damaging to another member. For example, a norm against swearing signals group members that such action would be hurtful to someone in the group and should be avoided.
  4. Norms help identify the group and express its central values to others. Norms concerning clothes, language, mannerisms, and so forth help tell others who belongs to the group and, in some cases, what the group stands for. Norms often serve as rallying points for group members.

Socializing Group Members

Group socialization refers to the process of teaching and learning the norms, rules, and expectations associated with group interaction and group member behaviors. Group norms and rules can only be created and maintained through socialization (Ahuja & Galvin, 2003).  The need for socialization also changes throughout a group’s life span. If membership in a group is stable, long-term members should not need much socialization. However, when new members join a group, existing members must take time to engage in socialization. When a totally new group is formed, socialization will be an ongoing process as group members negotiate rules and procedures, develop norms, and create a shared history over time.

The information exchanged during socialization can be broken down into two general categories: technical and social knowledge (Ahuja & Galvin, 2003). Technical knowledge focuses on skills and information needed to complete a task, and social knowledge focuses on behavioral norms that guide interaction. Each type of information is usually conveyed through a combination of formal and informal means. Technical knowledge can be fairly easily passed along through orientations, trainings, manuals, and documents because this content is often fairly straightforward. Social knowledge is more ambiguous and is usually conveyed through informal means or passively learned by new members through observation. Technical knowledge relates more to group rules and social knowledge relates more to group norms.

Organizations and groups socialize new members in different ways. A new training cohort at an established company may be given technical rule-based information in the form of a manual and history of the organization and an overview of the organizational culture to help convey social knowledge about group norms. Members of some small groups like fraternities or professional organizations have to take pledges or oaths that may convey a mixture of technical and social knowledge. Social knowledge may be conveyed in interactions that are separate from official group time. For example, literally socializing as a group is a good way to socialize group members. Many large and successful businesses encourage small groups within the company to socialize outside of work time to build cohesion and group solidarity.

our women working in a business meeting in a cafe coffee shop
Social knowledge is often shared in more informal meetings or socializing. (Credit: LinkedIn Sales Navigator/Coffee meeting/Unsplash)

Socialization continues after initial membership through the enforcement of rules and norms. When someone deviates from the rules and norms and is corrected, it serves as a reminder for all other members and performs a follow-up socializing function. Since rules are explicitly stated and documented, deviation from the rules can have consequences ranging from verbal warnings, to temporary or permanent separation from the group, to fines or other sanctions. And although norms are implicit, deviating from them can still have consequences. Even though someone may not actually verbally correct the deviation, the self-consciousness, embarrassment, or awkwardness that can result from such deviations is often enough to initiate corrective actions. Group norms can be so implicit that they are taken for granted and operate under group members’ awareness.

Group rules and norms provide members with a sense of predictability that helps reduce uncertainty and increase a sense of security for one’s place within the group. They also guide group members’ involvement with the group, help create a shared social reality, and allow the group to function in particular ways without having actual people constantly educating, monitoring, and then correcting member behaviors (Hargie, 2011). Of course, the degree to which this is successful depends on the buy-in from group members.


There must be some kind of motivating force present within groups for the rules and norms to help govern and guide a group. Without such pressure, group members would have no incentive to conform to group norms or buy into the group’s identity and values. In this section, we will discuss how rules and norms gain their power through internal and external pressures and how these pressures can have positive and negative effects.

In general, some people are more likely to accept norms and rules than others, which can influence the interaction and potential for conflict within a group. While some people may feel a need for social acceptance that leads them to accept a norm or rule with minimal conformity pressure, others may actively resist because they have a valid disagreement or because they have an aggressive or argumentative personality (Ellis & Fisher, 1994). Such personality traits are examples of internal pressures that operate within the individual group member and act as a self-governing mechanism. When group members discipline themselves and monitor their own behavior, groups need not invest in as many external mechanisms to promote conformity. Deviating from the group’s rules and norms that a member internalized during socialization can lead to self-imposed feelings of guilt or shame that can then initiate corrective behaviors and discourage the member from going against the group.

External pressures in the form of group policies, rewards or punishments, or other forces outside of individual group members also exert conformity pressure. In terms of group policies, groups that have an official admission process may have a probation period during which new members’ membership is contingent on them conforming to group expectations. Deviation from expectations during this “trial period” could lead to expulsion from the group. Supervisors, mentors, and other types of group leaders are also agents that can impose external pressures toward conformity. These group members often have the ability to provide positive or negative reinforcement in the form of praise or punishment, which are clear attempts to influence behavior.

Review & Reflection Questions

  • Discuss the role of norms in groups. What functions do they serve?
  • What are some examples of norms you have observed in previous groups? What norms might you want to adopt again in the future?
  • Imagine a new member was added to your team today. What might it look like to socialize that person into the group?
  • Is conformity to group norms always good? Why or why not?


  • Ahuja, M. K., & Galvin, J. E. (2003). Socialization in virtual groups. Journal of Management 29(2), 161-185.
  • Brilhart, J., & Galanes, G. (1998). Group discussion. McGraw-Hill.
  • Ellis, D. G., & Fisher, B. A. (1994). Small group decision making: Communication and the group process, (4th ed.). McGraw-Hill.
  • Feldman, D. (1984). The development and enforcement of group norms. Academy of Management Review, 9(1), 47–53.
  • Hackman, J. (1996). Group influences on individuals. In M. D. Dunnette (Ed.), Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology (2nd Edition). Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
  • Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice (5th ed.). Routledge.

Authors & Attribution

The introduction to “Definition of Norms” in this chapter is adapted from Chapter 10 “Groups Communication” from Survey of Communication Study by Laura K. Hawn and Scott T. Paynton. This content is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.

The sections “Characteristics of Group Norms” and “Functions of Group Norms” in this chapter were adapted from Black, J.S., & Bright, D.S. (2019). Organizational behavior. OpenStax. https://openstax.org/books/organizational-behavior/. Access the full chapter for free here. The content is available under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license.

The sections “Socializing Group Members” and “Pressure to Conform” are adapted from “Small Group Dynamics” in the book Communication in the Real World from the University of Minnesota. The book is adapted from a work produced and distributed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA) by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution. This work is made available under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.



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Small Group Communication Copyright © 2020 by Jasmine R. Linabary, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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