November 3

Normalization of Deviance

A phrase was coined in the wake of the space shuttleColumbiadisas- ter to describe the very dynamic that allowed it to occur: normalization of deviance. It seems that for years prior to theColumbiaexploding on reentry, it was routine for foam to shed off the external fuel tank during launch. This was so common that they used the termfoam sheddingto describe it, and even though it was concerning at first, eventually it was determined to be harmless. Until one fateful launch when the foam hap- pened to damage a heat shield that subsequently failed on reentry, lead- ing to the disaster.

This is why the termnormalization of deviancewas used to describe this event. Abnormal, deviant events were normalized over time, even though they were unacceptable. This happens in many organizations as well. Undesired behavior like missing deadlines, being late to meetings, snapping back with sarcastic comments, and the like become normal- ized parts of the culture to the point that no one even questions them. However, the long-term consequences of normalizing these behaviors can be significant, or even disastrous.

You can’t allow unacceptable behavior to become normalized, whether in yourself, your team, or the people you lead.

Normalization of deviance can quickly erode a culture and the collective creative process.


Do you see normalization of deviance playing out in your work? in your team’s culture? What can you do about it?

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