Workplaces are micro-societies with their own unique cultures, their own parallels to the unwritten rules of behavior that govern societies at large. We recognize coming-of-age rituals, birth ceremonies, and courtship norms as culture-determined behaviors – but so are coffee breaks, promotions, and the subtleties of choosing a seat at the conference table. I’m sure there is a literature of workplace behavior, but I haven’t read it. But I have spent countless hours of my professional life thinking about how to influence social norms around sex and birth and intimate conversations (no one told me that going into this field would require me to think so much about other people’s sex lives).

And really, how different is sex from a conference call? Okay, fine. Hopefully your sex life is more fun than your conference calls. But both things are human interactions heavily influenced by your ideas of what should be, what other people think, and what you know. We can change sexual behavior –and conference call behavior – by changing what people think should be, what they think other people think, and what they know.

What workplace norms should we aim to change? I think that depends on the workplace (perhaps even the team within the workplace), what its goals are, and what values people already hold. It’s always easiest to build off the vision people already hold of themselves, even if they aren’t living up to it. Many workplaces consider themselves flexible and responsive and kind (their values), but the social norms around work hours, listening to each other, and language (actual expected behavior) don’t line up with their values.

But let’s say, for the sake of having an example, that our workplace has a goal of a happy workforce, and over time we’ve identified that one thing standing in the way of work satisfaction is that people believe that they must be “on” all the time, available all the time, or they will be seen as a slacker. We’ve identified a damaging, unspoken norm: Good People Work All the Time. If good people work all the time, and if your worth is measured by whether your computer is still humming at 6pm, you never take lunch, and you respond within minutes to weekend emails…well, you really have no choice but to adhere to norms, do you?

Yes, actually, you do have a choice. We all do. How we help norms change depends on who we are and our positions in the workplace ecology, though. Imagine we were trying to change a health behavior in the community – what the heck, let me bring sex back in and say we are trying to increase family planning use. What would we do? We’d identify people who are influential and have them talk about their own family planning use and speak out about it publicly. We’d get people to talk to their friends about family planning and how it has made their lives better. Maybe we’d ask them to record a testimonial and put it the radio. We’d circulate information on the benefits and side effects of contraceptive methods and make sure that information got into the right hands at the right times. Right?

So let’s say, continuing the “Good People Work All the Time” example above, that we identified a few key behaviors we’d like to change to live up to our organization’s goal of having a happy workforce. Instead of harping on the existing negative behavior, let’s identify positive behaviors we’d like to encourage to counteract “Good People Work All the Time”. Those behaviors might be:

  • Leaving the office when you are supposed to leave
  • Not reading or writing emails at night or weekends unless there is a darn good reason
  • Taking lunch however you want to, whether outside or at your desk or in the lunch room

Okay, so what do you do now? Assume you fall into one of two baskets: 1) you are someone with organizational influence and power, or 2) you are someone who has to work through others to make your voice heard. Your approach will be different based on your position in the organization.

If you have influence or power at your organization, then your road is clear: you can start to change social norms in your workplace by modeling the behavior and being vocal about what you are doing and why. You can be an advocate. It’s not just that you can, but that you should, because if you are silent about a negative behavior, and you have power, people will assume you agree with the prevailing (negative) social norm. So you need to be explicit, clear, repeated, and loud about the behavior you do support if you want things to change. And you can also model the change: walk out of the office at 5 loud and proud, asking people if they can finish up and head home, too; refrain from sending an email at 8am on Saturday assuming your staff understands they don’t have to answer it; and label that hold at noon on your calendar “Out to Lunch,” rather than “Write Report.” Might you still work when you get home, or write that email at 8am on Saturday and save it in drafts, or eat lunch at your desk? Sure. But your explicit and visible behavior tells people what you expect of them.

If you don’t have that kind of influence or power, your road is less direct but still clear: you can enlist the above influential people in your cause, and you can ask them to be advocates. Be explicit in what you would like them to do and say. It is possible – probable, even – they have no idea their own words and behaviors influence the people around them in the ways that they do. You need to tell them. But even if you are not one of these influential people, you do have influence. Modeling behavior to your peers still helps, and if enough people model the behavior, whether it is from the top or the bottom, the perception of what is “normal” will change. You might not want to be as brazen as the influential example above, but you too can decide to leave when your work day is over, refrain from email on the weekend, and go out to lunch. Make a pact to do those things with a couple of work buddies and you’ve got yourself a social support network, a little node of an alternate social norm. And when your experiments in new work behaviors pan out okay, you can tell others and be your own workplace testimonial.

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