What to Do When Your Group’s Norms Make You Uneasy

Harness your power to challenge unhealthy group norms.

Posted May 17, 2019

Group* norms are “rules” regarding what group members should think and do. They define what’s normal behavior in the group. Conformity to group norms enables the group to function smoothly. Unique group norms also contribute to “groupness” since they distinguish the group from other groups and represent the group's identity by signifying members' shared values and assumptions. Familiarity with the group’s norms is one way to distinguish insiders from outsiders and in this way, shared norms contribute to the group's cohesion.

But not all group norms are good. Norms can be outdated, inefficient, and sometimes, downright unhealthy to group members or to others. For instance, group norms can support bullying, hazing, prejudice, and sexual harassment. Groups can have norms promoting unhealthy behaviors like eating disorders, risk-taking, or substance abuse

In principle, I believe we should take charge of our groups and change norms that threaten our group’s productivity or contribute to social and personal harms. But I also understand why people hesitate to challenge group norms. Conformity brings us liking and acceptance. Rebellion feels socially risky and can mess with group harmony and cohesion. If you feel your position is a minority position or you're not one of the group's leaders, you might doubt your ability to influence the group to change. But if you’re having difficulty rationalizing your dissonance away and your conscience is gnawing at you, then it’s definitely time to try to change the norm if the group is important to you, or to distance from or leave the group if it’s not. 

When deciding whether to speak up, or to distance or get out, one thing I’d consider is the odds that you can foster change in the group norm. Test the waters by broaching the topic with a few group members on the “down low “ to see if they feel similarly, and to get their take on how to handle it. If other members are discontented for the same reasons, you may be able to band together to bring change in the group, or, “spin off” to form a new group.

You’ll also want to consider your power and status in the group. All groups, even friendship groups, have status hierarchies with some members having more influence, power, and prestige in the group than others. If popular and powerful members of the group support the very norm you question, and other members like them more than you, or seek their approval more than yours, then your chances of being marginalized if you challenge the group norms is heightened and your influence over the group lessened. If, however, you’re an established and popular group member and the group has shown a past willingness to take up your ideas, it’s more likely the group will be responsive to your concerns. Enlisting the help of high status group members that agree to discuss, model, and reinforce new norms is sometimes a good way to go.

Another consideration is whether the norm you question is of historical value to the group. In other words, if the norm is central to the group’s long-standing traditions and it’s a source of shared group identity and group cohesion, members are more likely to be strongly committed to it and resistant to change. 

I’d also consider how the group typically responds to dissenters that challenge group norms. Some groups have norms prescribing strict conformity and dissenters are punished through ridicule and marginalization. The group’s identity and members’ behavior in the group is defined by shared group norms and challenging them is tantamount to treason. However, keep in mind that our fears of social rejection are often overestimated and we can speak up with relatively few social costs.

All that said, the study of obedience and conformity is clear: dissent often works. Even if you aren’t a high status group member you can change your group by speaking up. According to research, the best way to do this is to persistently and confidently assert your good sound reasons for the change. Some members will change their minds if it makes enough sense to them, and a decent-sized minority is enough to reject or modify an old norm and introduce a new one. 

It’s also a good idea to consider the relative costs and benefits of your relationship with the group. If the group stays the same will you have to compromise your integrity or well-being if you stay? How will that make you feel? What needs are met by the group and do you have (or can you cultivate) alternative ways to satisfy these needs? Another consideration is whether you can maintain relationships with those members that you most value if you distance or leave.

Margaret Mead once said, “Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have.” This also applies to small groups. It may be very well be up to you to be that caring catalyst for your group's change. 

*Here I'm referring to small groups which are two to twelve interacting, interdependent people that identify themselves as a group. Groups have norms, roles, status systems, a communication structure, and goals. They are sources of meaning and belonging, identity, and information, and goal accomplishment.

References

Burn, S.M. (2004). Groups: Theory & Practice. Cengage.