In the fast-paced world of modern leadership, the pursuit of excellence and innovation is a constant driver. However, a subtle and insidious force often lurks beneath the surface, threatening to erode the very foundations of organizational success: the normalization of deviance. First coined by sociologist Diane Vaughan in her seminal work, “The Challenger Launch Decision,” this concept has far-reaching implications for leaders at all levels of an organization, extending its corrosive influence into sectors as diverse as healthcare, aviation, and other mission-critical industries.
At its core, normalization of deviance refers to the gradual acceptance of abnormal behaviours or deviations from established norms as standard practice. This phenomenon, if left unchecked, poses a severe threat to team effectiveness, leading to catastrophic consequences that ripple across organizations.
There are several examples where the normalization of deviance led to spectacular failures:
The Challenger Disaster
The Challenger space shuttle disaster serves as a stark reminder of the dangers of normalizing deviance. Diane Vaughan’s meticulous analysis of the events leading up to the tragic 1986 launch reveals a chilling pattern of compromised safety standards and overlooked warning signs.
In an attempt to meet tight launch schedules and adhere to budget constraints, NASA found itself overlooking critical concerns. Engineers who raised red flags regarding O-rings and potential malfunctions were silenced or ignored. The normalization of deviance, in this case, was the gradual acceptance of riskier launch conditions as routine, leading to a catastrophic failure that claimed seven lives.
Healthcare’s Silent Crisis
One of the most notorious examples of the normalization of deviance in healthcare is the case of Dr. Harold Shipman, a British general practitioner who was convicted of murdering 15 of his patients but is suspected of killing more than 200. Shipman was able to evade detection for years because he exploited the trust and autonomy that doctors enjoy in the medical profession. He also benefited from the lack of rigorous checks and balances in the system, such as the absence of independent audits of death certificates, the ease of obtaining controlled drugs, and the reluctance of colleagues and authorities to question his practices. Shipman’s case illustrates how the normalization of deviance can erode ethical standards and professional accountability, leading to catastrophic outcomes for patients and society.
While the Shipman case made headlines, other more mundane failings in daily routines can cost lives. Consider the case of medication errors, a persistent issue that often stems from a gradual acceptance of shortcuts or deviations from established protocols. In a high-stakes environment where patient safety is paramount, such normalization of deviance can have life-altering consequences. Nurses, overwhelmed by demanding schedules and high patient loads, may inadvertently administer incorrect doses, or overlook essential steps in the medication administration process. The normalization of these deviations becomes a dangerous precedent, eroding the very foundations of a safety-driven culture within healthcare organizations.
Aviation: Throwing Caution to the Wind
Even in the highly regulated aviation sector, normalization of deviance has led to dramatic failures. Colgan Air Flight 3407, crashed near Buffalo, New York, in 2009, killing 50 people. The investigation found that the pilots had violated several SOPs during the flight, such as failing to monitor airspeed and altitude, engaging in non-pertinent conversation below 10,000 ft., and responding improperly to a stall warning. The pilots had also been fatigued due to inadequate rest periods and commuting long distances before their duty. The Colgan Air crash shows how the normalization of deviance can impair situational awareness and decision making, leading to loss of control and collision with terrain.
Pilots and aircrew, facing the pressures of tight schedules and operational demands, may find themselves compromising on safety protocols. The slow normalization of these deviations from established procedures can lead to an erosion of a safety-first mindset, potentially jeopardizing the lives of passengers and crew.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, which killed 11 workers and caused an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is yet another example of the normalization of deviance phenomenon. The investigation found that the oil rig had been operating with multiple violations and deviations from industry best practices, such as using outdated equipment, bypassing safety tests, and ignoring warning signs. The operators had also developed a culture of complacency and overconfidence, believing that they could handle any situation and that nothing would go wrong. The Deepwater Horizon incident shows how the normalization of deviance can undermine operational excellence and environmental responsibility, leading to massive damages and liabilities.
These examples were offered to illustrate the disastrous effect that normalization of deviance can have but rest assured that less dramatic instances can have a serious effect on an organization’s reputation, standing in the marketplace and its profitability. A salesperson whose callous approach to a customer leads to a lost sale has an immediate detrimental effect as well as a wider impact if left unchecked.
So, what can leaders, whether in the C-Suite or first-line management, do to guard against the normalization of deviance within their teams and organizations? How can one protect the various stakeholders with which the organization interacts from the effects of a creeping disregard for standards and safeguards. The answer lies in a number of factors which underline team effectiveness and high performance:
The Role of Psychological Safety
The significance of psychological safety in team effectiveness cannot be overstated. It plays a crucial role in deterring the normalization of deviance by fostering an environment characterized by openness, trust, and a commitment to learning. Psychological safety, as defined by Edmondson establishes a shared belief in the team’s safety for interpersonal risk-taking. This belief empowers team members to express ideas, admit mistakes, seek assistance, and challenge assumptions without the looming threat of punishment or rejection.
In settings where individuals are apprehensive about potential repercussions or ostracization for voicing concerns, deviant behaviours can take root, and potential hazards may be dismissed. Therefore, establishing an atmosphere where team members feel secure expressing their thoughts, even when challenging the status quo, is paramount in preventing the normalization of deviance.
Recognizing the symbiotic relationship between psychological safety and the normalization of deviance is imperative for cultivating a resilient and effective team culture. By prioritizing psychological safety, leaders can curtail the inclination toward accepting deviant behaviours, thereby maintaining a vigilant stance against potential dangers.
The Perspective from Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team
Psychological safety is also fundamental in Patrick Lencioni’s framework on the five dysfunctions of a team which offers another perspective of how the normalization of deviance can thrive. Trust, the foundational element, crumbles when team members witness deviations from established norms without consequences. As the team loses its ability to engage in healthy conflict, deviant behaviours fester in the shadows, undermining the team’s collective success. Without trust, the team fears conflict, the open and candid exchange of views and challenging of ideas, which in turn leads to a lack of commitment and accountability.
The Role of Supportive Context, Solid Structure and Team Coaching
Hackman and Wageman’s six conditions for team effectiveness and in particular, the enabling conditions of Supportive Context, Solid Structure and Team Coaching have an important bearing in preventing the normalization of deviance. A supportive context requires leaders to cultivate an environment that encourages open communication, fosters accountability, and upholds shared values to guard against the gradual acceptance of deviant behaviours along with ensuring that teams are properly resourced. Having a sound structure where roles and responsibilities are clear with mutual accountability in place also has an important bearing on guarding against the normalization of deviance. Team coaching provides guidance and support to the team by an external coach or an internal team leader and recognizes the importance of having a facilitator who can help the team among other to navigate challenges and remain true to their mission.
In short, leaders must be vigilant, fostering a culture of continuous improvement and accountability to combat the normalization of deviance. Regular audits, transparent communication channels, and a commitment to learning from near misses are essential components of a strategy to combat the creeping normalization of deviance. A team’s culture needs to periodically be revisited in a structured manner that helps the team to re-energize its commitment to excellence and nip any misalignments as early as possible.