I recently had a 17-hour layover in Paris. Since I had never been to Paris before, I resolved to make the most of the French passport stamp. We stowed our bags and grabbed our backpacks, ensuring that we would be as mobile as possible, and as such, see as much of Grand Ole Paris as we could. We figured out the train and bought a round trip ticket from, and back to, Charles de Gaul.
The Blue line took us straight into the city where we spent every minute we could taking self-portraits with Eiffel tower, the arch de triumph, and the Champs Elysees.
We ate crepes and chocolate croissants and washed them down with espresso and wine. After the midnight lighting of the Eiffel tower we started making our way back to the airport. What was an easy commute into the city turned out to be a little more challenging on the way back. We were fairly confident we were on the right train but what we hadn’t factored in was that beginning around midnight the transportation system started shutting down certain trains since there weren’t many people (we might have been the only ones actually) who were heading to the airport at 12:30am. This left us standing on the platform trying to figure out an alternative route.
It must have been clear that we were lost, because a kind passerby offer to show us which train to take. She didn’t speak clear English, but motioned for us to follow her. Which, of course, we did. Now, what happened next, I could never have predicted if my life had depended on it. We had apparently stopped at the final stop for the night on that particular line, because when the doors opened people took off running, and by running I mean sprinting full speed ahead off the train cars, across the platform, down the ramps, and out the station gates in to the darkness. There was an intensity to the movement that left no doubt the only thing to do was join in the crushing 400 meter dash. We, along with the other 200 people on the train, made it out to the sidewalk so quickly that you would have thought the last person on the platform was going to be shot. There we were, arm in arm, backpacks jostling, approaching near Olympic speeds hurling headlong down the ramp – and we had no idea why.
This might be an odd turn, but does it ever feel that way in your organization? At some point the cultural norms or patterns were set people follow them full speed ahead just because that is the way “we do things?” Kind of like sprinting off the train. It turns out the people were running because just outside the gates were rows of buses waiting to take people on the final leg of their journey. My friend and I climbed on the bus marked for CDG, thankful for the help of the stranger. However the thing that was fascinating to me was that all the buses stayed parked for at least 10 to 15 more minutes before leaving. They were clearly waiting to make sure every single person who was on the last train of the night got onto a bus. There was no need to run – it was simply the norm to run. That norm had been set in motion at some point and people continued to willingly follow it. I wondered in passing how difficult it would be to shift the culture on that platform? I wager it would take more than a sign or an attendant yelling at people to slow down. It was a sight to see, even the elderly people were swept into the crowd and carried away to the waiting buses.
In thinking about my experience at the train station and about our organizations, several principles apply…
Norms for group behavior develop quickly and become entrenched
It’s easy for a group to start doing things one way and for that way to become the default. In your organization do people take calls “after hours?” Respond to email while on vacation? Work form the office? Complain and focus on the negative? Do individuals do their part and invest in the collective? Strive for excellence or settle for good enough?
Norms don’t necessarily follow logic
It wasn’t the smallest bit logical that we ran full speed, following complete strangers out of the train station. But we did it. So while norms don’t follow logic, they do often follow values and needs – to fit in, to be included, not to be alone, to avoid being stranded on platform alone in the middle of the night. Values reflect work ethic, product quality, reputation, and prestige. Needs reflect being known, loved, balanced, and authentic.
Changing existing norms requires clarity and perseverance
As the culture setter in the organization, it is critical that you are clear about what norms you want to establish and embrace, and which either don’t matter or you want to change. There are a number of norms that may not matter to the overall culture of your organization – who sits where during staff meeting, which day the trash is taken out, or whether the kitchen is stocked with coffee or tea. However if you are going to change existing norms you are going to need to communicate clearly about the new norm or expectation. Casting vision (over and over and over) and then shifting your behavior to the new norm will help that expectation to become ingrained in the DNA of your organization. Want the team to support collective work? Talk about why it is important and then start helping others. Want people to work until the product is excellent? Cast some vision for what makes an excellent product and then make sure every email, blog and promo piece that go out of your office are exceptional. Want your organization to be generous? Start with your staff and be generous to them.
Norms may not be obvious to those in the system, but they will be clear to an outsider
I wonder if they people on the platform thought their behavior was odd? I would guess not, since the only thing they said to us was “run faster.” It might be helpful to bring in an outside person and ask them (or a new team member several months in) a series of questions about your organization’s culture. How would they describe it? What words come to mind? What does it appear we value? What matters most to us?
There are a lot of “speeds” to get out of the station
Finally, there are usually multiple ways to do things…or multiple speeds if you will. Part of establishing healthy norms is figuring out what works best for you and your organization. Maybe it is a strict schedule, or working from remote locations. Maybe it’s a family feel to the office or a fun team environment. Perhaps flexibility works for you rather than a more structured approach. The key is to stop from time to time and evaluate your pace and whether running full speed is working for you or not.
By the way, we made it to the airport in plenty of time for our flight.
Wendy Dickinson, Ph.D.