Teaming Up – Group Conformity & Deviation


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For a workplace or project to be truly successful, you need teams that are productive and effective, but finding that perfect collective and keeping it going strong can be a challenge. As we learn more about teamwork and group development, let’s dig a little deeper to understand more about the inner workings of a team and some of the underlying issues that impact the overall dynamics and potential for success.

Group norms & behaviours

We all behave differently in different situations and adopt various social roles depending on where we are and who we are with…it’s completely normal! These social expectations – or norms – direct us how to conduct ourselves in various settings. For example, there are general, unwritten ‘guidelines’ for how we would act at a rock concert, a funeral, job interview or our child’s dance recital. While it’s important to be true to ourselves and live our lives as unique individuals, there will always be social and workplace expectations where we need to slide into a particular role and focus on teamwork in order to get the job done with as little chaos as possible.

Why do we conform?

In general, we follow laws to avoid disorder, injuries, and even total anarchy – without rules and regulations we wouldn’t have a safe or fair society. However, in the workplace and in smaller social groups, there are several other personal reasons why we conform and try to fit in:

  • Acceptance – We want to be liked, appreciated and accepted by our peers or higher-ups while avoiding negative consequences.
  • Enjoyment – Simply put, it’s nice to belong to a group and have enjoyable experiences. By not conforming, we bring conflict and disruption into the equation.
  • Achieving group goals – Especially in the workplace when we have a project at hand, we need to accomplish it as a group as efficiently and effectively as possible. Limited time, money and resources help to push this along.
  • Contribution – Utilizing our own skill sets and actively contributing to a tangible outcome is personally rewarding. Further, it gives us a broader reputation as being competent, thus leading to potential future opportunities.

Everywhere we go, we put on a different hat so to say, and conform to the general expectations of that particular situation. The workplace is no exception; there are norms which define the appropriate expectations of the team and they give us a sense of order so we can function cohesively and effectively. When a group or team is well-organized with clear objectives and solid leadership, each member has a better understanding of their obligations and behaves accordingly. In these instances, we’re happy to conform and play out our roles to the best of our ability; we want approval and recognition for our work and our professionalism.

Reasons why we deviate

It’s common for individuals in a group to deviate from the expected norms. It may be someone regularly showing up late or having a bad attitude, or it can be more serious such as acting out aggressively, falsifying information, or altering the course of action without consensus. Some deviation is normal and can even produce positive results, such as an employee refusing to work in unsafe conditions or standing up for environmental causes. However, deviations can produce a toxic environment, delay the project, and/or sabotage it altogether. With strong team dynamics, good management and early recognition, it can often be resolved.

The reasons for deviating from social or group norms depend on the individual and on the situation/environment. It may be the result of:

  • misaligned values
  • lack of information
  • disagreements within the team
  • personality or mental health issues
  • poor teamwork or team leadership

Another example is if someone is socially detached or lacks emotional intelligence – they may not know how to read a situation or group well enough to know the right behaviours. When we don’t conform to social norms in our personal and professional lives, the short and long-term impacts can be significant. We may be ignored by our peers, face punishment or negative consequences (such as being outcast, ridiculed, demoted, fired, arrested, and so on) which can lead to personal and financial distress.

The more we learn about human behaviour and what makes us tick, the better equipped we are to tackle potentially difficult situations. There’s no avoiding the fact that we’re all social beings who have common goals (such as living in a safe, just and happy environment), while at the same time possessing unique individual motivations and beliefs. It’s a fine balance, but together, we can sure make it work!

“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” – Charles Darwin