Thursday, December 4, 2014

Engagement and the normalisation of deviance

The term ‘normalisation of deviance’ was first coined by Diane Vaughan following the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986 (yes, it was that long ago-seems like yesterday). It refers to the gradual acceptance of flaws in procedures and operations, so that tolerance of less than optimal, or even acceptable practice becomes the norm.  In the case of disasters, for which the normalisation of deviance refers, danger signals are ignored, greater margins of error are accepted, and performance checks are not made. It is the development of a dysfunctional culture. The result is disaster.

Normalisation of deviance is similar to the more well-known psychological phenomenon of desensitization. When we become desensitized to something our feelings about it become less acute, we become less afraid perhaps, less amazed, less concerned. This occurs due to repeated exposure to an event, which results in familiarity. It becomes more normal.

The idea of normalisation of deviance can be applied to organizational operations as well as safety. I want to choose the example of employee engagement here, since engagement has been demonstrated to be critical in determining organization success, effectiveness and efficiency.  The cost to organisations of having disengaged employees is truly staggering.

Employee engagement is effected very strongly by leadership, usually of the transformational rather than transactional kind. That is, management through people where there is an emphasis on: excellent relationships between leaders and employees; the development of people; involvement in decision-making; sharing of information; excellent communication; clarity of expectations; employee control over flow and pace of their jobs; intrinsic reward; collaboration; trust; and a clear vision, for example.

Low levels of engagement are, however, the norm, according to a series of surveys of a large number of organisations across the globe conducted by the Gallup organization, and others. This means that most organisations are not managing their human resources well. This results in lowered productivity, efficiency and effectiveness.

What is important is the extent to which poor performance, poor leadership, poor followship and a dispiriting lack of engagement can become the norm in organisations. I’m sure most of you can tell stories about airlines, retail organisations, service providers, hospitals, and schools, for example, where there is a culture of mediocrity: where you, the customer, is treated shabbily. It is due to the normalisation of deviance.

Organisational culture is the responsibility of leaders. It is up to leaders to normalize engagement rather than a culture where unacceptable standards are the norm, deviant. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that culture change is possible, largely by adopting transformational and situational leadership approaches. At the same time the organization needs to look outwards rather than inward, to be agile, responsible and flexible in what is now a constantly changing environment.

Success is embedded in a normalisation of excellence and it is leadership that drives it.


  1. Great post, Stewart. I'm talking to some people from our National Health Service Transformation Unit in the UK, where the normalisation of deviance has become, well, the norm. It's a good way of conceptualising transformation, and sits well alongside Dave Brailsfords 'aggregation of marginal gains' strategy for making Sky Cycling world-beaters at the 2012 Olympics. Amazingly, less than two years in, all that advantage has been lost, and Brailsford has now ripped up all their plans and is starting all over - it take s a brave leader to do that!

  2. It certainly does take a brave leader and courage is in short supply these days-at least in this country

  3. Why did it not occur to me earlier to find out if you had a blog?

    I just don't think "computer", as a more techie friend told me a while back.

    "Normalisation of deviance" was enjoyable, informative and ethnological.

    Shall be back for some of the other stuff. if the rest is as good, it'll be a rewarding journey.

    Paul Walter