The Geek Way: Leading Change through Norms

Recently, I participated in a Harvard Business Review New World of Work event. Andrew McAfee, an MIT research scientist, shared his thoughts on his latest research and book “The Geek Way”.  The Geek Way describes how geeks, or leaders obsessed by a problem, have used 4 norms to create new, different, and effective cultures in organizations.

Norms are powerful tools.

Leaders can design an excellent organization strategy, implement a solid structure and governance… but may still miss delivering on goals and objectives because behaviors are not aligned to deliver the results needed. But how can we change behaviors?

Organizational norms are behaviors that are expected within a group or organization. All members of an organization understand and abide by these norms. If you stray too far from these behaviors, you will hear about it and will likely either change (adjusting your behaviors to fit the norms) or depart (if the norms don’t ‘fit’ you).

Leaders can adapt and evolve norms by:
  1. Exhibiting or modeling a behavior – to shift to a more accountable culture, leaders can continue to push decisions further down into the organization. Leaders should ensure that team members are enabled, equipped and know they have the authority to make decisions.
  2. Telling a story that connects – our team has written many blogs about the importance of storytelling. This oldie but goodie describes the science behind why stories are so impactful. Our brains chemically and physically respond to stories and process them like real life situations.
  3. Admitting you don’t know all of the answers – a vulnerable leader provides room for team members to create solutions.

Defining and communicating norms can be a successful way to change behavior. How have you used norms to lead through change?

Cheryl Farley is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on LinkedIn or connect via email at