Social Norms and Conformity

Social norms are implicit and explicit rules of behavior that develop through interactions among members of a given group or society. Essentially, norms are prescriptions for how people should act in particular situations. All groups have established norms that tell members what they should and should not do under certain circumstances. When agreed to and accepted by the group, norms act as a means of influencing the behavior of group members with a minimum of external control. Group members desire acceptance by the group, and because of this desire, they are susceptible to conforming to group norms. There is ample research evidence that groups can place strong pressures on individual members to change their attitudes and behaviors to conform to the group’s standard.

Because the workplace context is social and requires interpersonal interaction, work behavior is affected by shared social norms. Formalized norms are written up in organizational manuals that set out rules and procedures for employees to follow, but by far, most norms in organizations are informal. Norms in organizations cover a wide variety of circumstances; however, there are certain classes of norms that seem to crop up in most organizations and affect the behavior of members. Some of the most common organizational norms include the following:

  • Dress norms: Social norms frequently dictate the kind of clothing people wear to work
  • Reward-allocation norms: Norms that dictate how rewards such as pay, promotions, and informal favors are allocated in organizations
  • Performance norms: The performance of organizational members might be as much a function of social expectations as it is of inherent ability, personal motivation, and technology

Individuals are members of many groups in domains such as family, friendship, work, and community, and each overlapping group has norms that may be similar or different. Some or all of these norms may influence an individual’s behavior, and some norms apply to essentially everyone, whereas others apply only to certain members within a specific context. For example, norms against incest and cannibalism are widely held in nearly all cultures. Other norms, such as those regulating greetings and nonverbal behavior, vary among cultures or even within cultural subgroups. The norms that are salient at any particular time vary as a function of group and setting, and social norms become more salient when the situation calls attention to group membership.

Individuals obey social norms for several reasons. First, compliance is the simplest, most direct motive for conformity to group norms. It occurs because members wish to acquire rewards from the group and avoid punishment. Compliance is characterized by a change in observable behavior to match the social norm while maintaining a private lack of acceptance of the norm itself. Second, identification occurs when individuals conform because they find other supporters of the norm attractive. Identification as a motive for conformity is often revealed by an imitation process in which established members serve as models for the behavior of others. For example, a newly promoted executive might attempt to dress and talk like her successful, admired boss. Third, individuals may conform to a norm because they have truly and wholly accepted the beliefs, values, and attitudes that underlie it. Conformity occurs because the norm is seen as right, not because it achieves rewards, avoids punishment, or pleases others. That is, conformity is the result of internal rather than external forces.

Types of Norms

Descriptive and injunctive norms function at the group level of analysis, whereas subjective and personal norms operate at the individual level of analysis.

Descriptive norms are concerned with what individuals actually do and develop from watching the actions of other group members in certain situations. The more that target group members behave similarly in a given situation, the more the observer will tend to view their behavior as appropriate. When individual group members believe that the group supports a certain behavior, they are more likely to exhibit this behavior themselves.

Injunctive norms refer to attitudes toward certain behavior or what individuals feel is “right” based on morals or beliefs. They are specific guidelines about behavior in certain situations (i.e., reciprocity norms) and develop through normative influence or when group members conform to receive social approval. Rather than describing appropriate and inappropriate behavior, injunctive norms prescribe it.

Subjective norms are group members’ perceptions about what important and influential individuals (e.g., leaders) think about a certain behavior. Thus, they are subjective in the sense that there are variations between individuals as to who is considered important. The theory of reasoned action suggests that the main influence on individual intentions is subjective norms. This may be one reason it is common practice for people to consult others before making decisions.

Rather than treating norms as a defining workplace characteristic (i.e., a shared moral understanding among members of the organization), personal norms allow the recognition that individuals in the same workplace may vary in their expectations. Personal norms are located within the self. For example, someone may have a long-held belief that it is important to help others, and thus his or her behavior reflects a personal norm to behave altruistically. Personal norms are generally less affected by social context, although some have argued that they may be influenced by group norms.

Norm Formation

Norms are more likely to be established when they facilitate group survival and task accomplishment. Moreover, insofar as the perceptual, emotional, and cognitive dispositions responsible for adherence to norms are innate, compliance with social norms must be beneficial to human adaptation. Norms can be beneficial because they (a) keep the group intact and protect the group by punishing behaviors that threaten the group; (b) provide regularity and predictability to the behaviors expected of group members, thereby helping group members predict and anticipate the actions of peers; (c) help the group avoid embarrassing interpersonal problems and ensure that no group member’s self-image is damaged; and (d) express the central values of the group and clarify what is distinctive about its identity.

Some norms are actively transmitted (e.g., explicit statements and rituals), whereas others are passively transmitted (e.g., nonverbal behaviors and imitation). Norms, if they are written down, become formal rules of proper conduct, but in most instances, norms are adopted implicitly as people align their behavior until consensus in action emerges. Muzafer Sherif’s classic analysis of this process suggests that this gradual alignment of action reflects the development of frames of reference for behaviors. Upon forming a group, individuals rapidly structure their experiences until they conform to a general standard. Individuals may not actively try to conform to the judgments of others, but instead they use the group consensus to revise their opinions and beliefs.

Norm formation involves consensus formation and group decision making. Social influence network theory suggests that norms are formed through a process of interpersonal influence in which members’ attitudes toward an issue change as they revise weighted averages of the influential positions of other members. Leaders may influence the discussion that is a part of norm formation because they are likely to direct other team members’ activities and influence subordinate behavior to facilitate goal achievement. Moreover, leaders often direct the discussion process or serve an integrative function within the group.

The process of socialization explains how established norms become institutionalized. Even though the individuals who originally fostered the norms are no longer present, their normative innovations remain a part of the organization’s traditions. When new employees discover and learn their organization’s standards and expectations, they are experiencing socialization. In most instances, it is the individual who assimilates the group’s norms, values, and perspectives. At times, however, socialization can generate changes in norms as the group accommodates to fit the newcomer’s needs. Sometimes a staunch, unyielding individual can shift the group’s norms, provided he or she maintains the appearance of consistency and objectivity.

Once established, norms give rise to obligations, which form the basis of each person’s agreement with his or her peers. However, because norms are often informal and emerge naturally in groups, they may not support the larger strategic goals of the group. By debating and establishing formal norms, some groups are better able to proactively determine behaviors that are tailored to their needs. The negotiation of common expectations about how each group member should behave represents a proactive stance toward dealing with group problems and may contribute to overall group performance.

Aberrant Behavior

Upon being assigned to a group, people appear automatically to think of that group as better for them than any alternative group. This can lead to increased attraction of in-group members and devaluation and possible mistreatment of out-group members. According to social identity theorists, a common normative belief in most social groups is that their group is desirable and members are superior to nonmem-bers. This belief occurs because groups are motivated to keep a positive self-image. This self-image consists of both a personal identity and a social identity, and any action or thought that elevates a social identity tends to elevate self-image.

Research suggests that norm misperceptions can occur, and misperceptions predict behavior. A meta-analysis of 23 studies of norm misperceptions (described as self-other differences) found that misperceptions of injunctive norms were greater than misperceptions of descriptive norms. The meta-analysis reported that misperceptions were greater as social distance increased, whereas the influence on the behavior of closer or more salient social groups was stronger.

A norm often becomes salient to interactions only after it is violated. If normative behavior is defined as the typical choice that others would make in a given context, then counter normative behavior or deviance is not the typical choice that others would make. A person may deviate in desirable ways (e.g., display extrarole behavior) or in undesirable ways, and thus deviance may bring either praise or criticism.

By conforming to group norms, idiosyncrasy credits can be earned, and if enough idiosyncrasy credits are earned, the person can, on occasion, breach norms (deviate in undesirable ways) without retribution from the group. Individuals who breach norms but cannot provide an acceptable explanation for their violation are often evaluated negatively and may experience peer aggression, violence, and lesser forms of mistreatment.

Often, punishments for not complying with norms come from social networks as opposed to formal systems established by the organization. Not everyone who breaches a norm receives the same punishment; peer reaction depends on the magnitude of the discrepancy, the importance of the norm, and the characteristics of the person violating the norm. Not conforming to social norms and values is likely to make followers quickly perceive a leader as incompetent and not deserving of that position, regardless of his or her personal achievements. On the other hand, for most individuals, small breaches that reflect personal idiosyncrasies, if kept private, will likely be overlooked.

Individuals may obey norms to fulfill their own expectations about proper behavior. Individuals often feel duty bound to adhere to norms because, as responsible members of the group, they accept the legitimacy of the established norms and recognize the importance of supporting these norms. Individuals who breach norms that they accept may experience a range of negative emotional consequences, such as extreme self-consciousness, embarrassment, guilt, and shame.

The consequences of norm breaches vary by context. For example, cultures that are high in uncertainty avoidance tend to be intolerant of ambiguity and thus likely to be distrustful of new ideas or behaviors. They stick dogmatically to norms, which, in the extreme, become inviolable to reduce uncertainty. Breaches upset uncertainty-reducing activity, so organizations in these cultures may adopt structural formalization and centralization, thus reducing the degree of sharing of important information and decision making with subordinates. In contrast, people from low-uncertainty-avoidance societies are more tolerant of deviations from social norms.


Norms simplify behavioral choices, provide direction and motivation, and organize social interactions. Most people attend to cues that convey information about social norms and try to comply with norms they believe are in force and feel distress if they act out of compliance. In general, the more consequential the norm, the swifter the social response if it is breached.


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