Social Normicide

February 29th, 2012

System norms and social norms don’t play well together.  Systems value efficiency, predictability, and repeatability, among other things. Social norms are rooted in values such as trust, reciprocity, and respect. Social Normicide is when our commitment to system norms eclipses our commitment to serving people—like spraying herbicide on your flowers.

Here’s a common way that this can happen:

An organization receives a grant to meet predefined objectives. In order to fulfill their contract with their funder, the organization must achieve certain predefined deliverables. Fear enters and the organization proceeds as though the purpose of the project is to preserve fidelity to the plan. Though no one would explicitly state it, bringing positive change to people is of secondary importance.

Notice how this inverts our priorities: we serve the system’s demands instead of the needs of people. Right this relationship. Serve people not systems.

Of course we have to satisfy system norms, but keep them separate from social norms. Insulate the people you serve from system demands. The irony is that when we prioritize doing innovative, thoughtful work that engages people in a powerful way, we not only meet the demands of the system, we often exceed them.