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Are you Normalizing Bad Behavior?

“Would you jump off a bridge if all of your friends did?”
That question seems to have been passed down in the parenting handbook for generations. It’s meant to combat the pre-teen and teenage years when our pre-frontal cortex isn’t quite fully developed and peer pressure reigns supreme. A silly question taken to an extreme–where the only answer can be “no”–was meant to jolt us back to reality.
The same older and wiser parents who posed the question might need to step back and ask it to themselves. In recent conversations, I’ve noticed the ‘everyone’s doing it’ justification being thrown around quite a bit. From the use of performance-enhancing drugs to pushing the boundaries of what’s legal in sport to the politics of deal-making and corruption. The common refrain came out…
“But that’s how business is done now…”
“They all do that. Everyone makes shady deals to get things done…”
“At that level, everyone is pushing the boundaries…”
And that’s normal. There’s decades of research showing how common the “everyone’s doing it,” excuse is. From athletes using drugs to businesses massaging their tax documents. We justify behaviors that many of us once thought of as unethical by proclaiming that “everyone’s doing it.”
The implication is that if something is normalized then it must be right. There’s an incentive, then, for those crossing the line to push the normalization narrative. If you’re Lance Armstrong, it pays off to make it seem like there were zero clean athletes in cycling. Or that everyone cheats on the tests, or taxes, or that shady behavior in politics is the norm. When we normalize, we play the “everyone’s doing it” card.
And when we normalize, there are consequences.
Sociologist Diane Vaughn coined the term “Normalization of Deviance” in the 1980s, and has been researching it ever since. Vaughn defined the concept: “Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behavior that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety.”
In a recent review, John Banja, a professor in the Center for Ethics at Emory University, outlined the justifications and reasons that people resort to when they normalize bad behavior or rule-breaking, including: the rules are stupid and inefficient; I’m breaking the rule for the good of my patient/job/country; The rules don’t apply to me; you can trust me; I’m afraid to speak up.
In other words, it’s easy to rationalize and justify. Company and team values slowly drift, following the inertial pull of normalization.

After all, that’s what Dr. Vaughn found at NASA. She defined the term when evaluating why the Challenger exploded. As we know now, the O-Rings, which were supposed to seal the joints between the fuel segments failed, leading to an explosion of the tanks. NASA and the engineers contracted to develop the putty that sealed the O-rings knew of that exact risk. They had previously observed issues in the erosion of the putty and deemed it an acceptable risk. Vaughn described how the risk was reinterpreted in her book: “Each time, evidence initially interpreted as a deviation from expected performance was reinterpreted as within the bounds of acceptable risk,” before concluding, “As [NASA and Morton-Thiokol] recurrently observed the problem with no consequence they got to the point that flying with the flaw was normal and acceptable.”
While not all of our normalization will result in epic disaster, if we continually let our values, beliefs, and standards slip, we set ourselves up for disappointing choices and disappointing results. Instead, schedule regular check-ins to see if your actions are holding true to your values, or if the creep of normalization is taking its toll.



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