I had a great chat with someone, who can be described as an old acquaintance but a new friend, recently. She is moving to a new country and wanted to prepare herself for entering a new culture. Because I have lived in three countries that are not my home country and culture is what I do professionally – albeit organizational culture – she was interested in picking my brain a bit. One of the things that came up in the conversation was a not-so-prevalent distinction between the word common and the word normal.

common_normalWhile you may be thinking there isn’t much difference between the two, there is quite a chasm. What may be common in a culture, it may not be considered normal. What is viewed as normal, may not be all that common.

According to Dictionary.com:

Common – A frequent, often familiar, occurrence that is shared by two or more or all in question.

Normal – Serving to establish a standard.

Quite often, organizations experience certain behavior, actions or responses which are mentally labeled as normal, when in fact they are simply common. They are behaviors which run counter to the standard desired by leadership and that which will achieve the desired goals of the organization. When there is a gap between what is normal and what is common, the tension adversely affects your culture. The greater the gap, the greater the tension.

Here are a 4 tips to successfully align common with normal.

  • Call it what it is – By purposefully making the distinction between common and normal, you are doing 2 things. You are communicating in a clear and concise way AND you are educating and developing those you’re leading. That is Leadership 101. It is also managing expectations and being purposeful in creating the culture you want.
  • Coach people on the distinction – When the opportunity arises – oh, and it will – ask those on your team if they believe an action is common (frequent and familiar) or normal (establishing a desired standard). Ask them to give reasons based on organizational values and the culture of the company. This gets people to critically think about behavior instead of just externally conforming to behavioral expectations.
  • Don’t freak out – I know it sounds silly, but when people recognize this distinction it can be tempting to feel the urge to close the gap as quickly as possible. If you freak, it creates anxiety and your whole team will freak right along with you. It’s tough to think critically and successfully navigate change when your dander is up. Chill out and understand that it’s an experiment in critical mass. It will be slow in the beginning, but once you have a few wins on the board and understanding has deepened, things will gain momentum and the gap will close much more quickly. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Encourage normal – Make normal behavior part of your rewards program. Don’t rush to punish common – and perhaps unwanted – behavior. Encouraging normal sets the tone of development and allows room for making mistakes. The moment common is punished you doom your team to behavioral robots and your productivity will suffer.

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences regarding common and normal.

  • It is an important difference. 🙂 I have been working with customer service for many years. What is normal is not at all common and the other way around. Common errors should not be the normal standard 🙂 Have a great day.

  • Absolutely! Thanks heaps for your contribution Frode.

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  • In my experience, the two are often related to the degree to which employees need to handle business process exceptions improvisationally, which often means finding a common practice that may in fact violate the rules of existing business processes, i.e. normal practice, as defined in the information systems they use. In such instances of exception handling, the organization’s business is often better served by common practice IMHO

  • I think process exceptions are an area in which this distinction is most frequently apparent. It permeates the culture as well in how people interact with one another. Thanks for your contribution!