Normalisation of deviance

Normalisation of deviance may sound mathematical, and therefore uninteresting to some folk.  On the contrary, normalisation of deviance is neither mathematical nor uninteresting.  More significantly, it is of huge importance to school boards and leaders.

Normalisation of deviance is the process that occurs when things that were once unacceptable gradually become acceptable.  The longer the time that passes without encountering problems, the greater the tolerance for accepting the changed standards.

On a building construction site, for example, a long period with no accidents may lead to complacency which results in less conscientious wearing of hard hats, and eventually widespread neglect of the requirement. Alternatively, a driver who starts ignoring the speed limit and doesn’t have an accident or get fined, may start to use excessive speed routinely.  A student who starts sharing passwords with others to avoid licensing fees may become overly generous with sharing personal data.

It is easy to see how each of these situations can lead to disaster – a crushed skull on a construction site, a major traffic accident or loss of licence for a driver, or serious identity theft for the generous student.  There are many other scenarios where the process and the consequences of normalisation of deviation can be seen – smoking, hand washing, closing farm gates, ignoring fire alarms, by-passing safety checklists, cutting corners with background and reference checks, and so on.

The common element in all these scenarios is that what was once unacceptable becomes the norm and is no longer seen as deviant.

In busy schools where time and money are scarce resources (in other words, every school in the world), the seductive attraction of embracing normalisation of deviation is obvious, and perhaps compelling, even when it is unconscious.  School accountants are often the instigators, making the case to receptive boards that cost-cutting in maintenance, or staff benefits, or depreciation allowances, or professional development, or provision of fees relief to needy families, or (insert anything that might appear to reduce costs) will improve the balance sheet without adversely affecting the school’s ‘core business’.  The same accountants might also argue that raising the tuition fees a little more than usual to increase revenue will not “really” make the school more financially elitist.

School boards must be conscious of the cumulative impact of decisions that deviate from ‘best practice’, and they should firmly resist them.  The apparent absence of negative outcomes when corners are initially cut tends to reinforce the behaviours and the decision-making processes associated with normalisation of deviance – by-passing safety checklists, ignoring alarms, overlooking obvious tripping hazards, and so on.  However, decisions that compound over time to dilute the school’s mission and vision will almost inevitably trigger a crisis or disaster as the cumulative deviations from best practice escalate.  Such crises or disasters invariably wind up costing far more than the real or imagined savings gained in earlier decisions that attempted to normalise deviations, especially when reputational damage is included (just ask Boeing).

How can school boards and leaders ensure that they are not surrendering to the temptations of normalisation of deviance?

  • Ensure that all board members understand the concept of normalisation of deviance, how it occurs, and what are its consequences.
  • Ground every discussion and decision in the school’s mission, vision and strategic plan.
  • Develop, communicate, and adhere unswervingly to a clear set of policies and processes that are explicitly grounded in the school’s philosophy, define acceptable standards of ethical behaviour and compliance, and contain explicit consequences of deviant conduct.
  • Foster an environment of openness, transparency, and honest communication, including establishing channels for reporting concerns, malpractice or potential deviations from defined ‘best practice’ that allow individuals to raise legitimate concerns without fear of reprisal.
  • Conduct regular performance reviews of the board, senior management and all staff using a neutral, transparent, widely communicated and well-understood framework.
  • Resist pressure to deviate from ‘best practice’ through (for example) emotional appeals to ignore conflicts of interest, requests to engage in related parties transactions without arm’s length safeguards, by-passing proper channels of communication, neglecting regular board and senior management performance reviews, nepotism, overlooking financial or legal mis-steps – in short, anything that falls short of the highest standards of ethical, legal, or financial integrity.
  • Attend to any and every health or safety risk as an urgent priority.

Normalisation of deviance can be particularly tricky to avoid when failures are rare yet severe or when they are known but the consequences seem distant, such as smoking.  Fortunately, the consequences of normalisation of deviance in schools are far more predictable and therefore easier to avoid – provided school leaders and boards understand the risks they pose.  It’s really quite simple – avoiding normalisation of deviance within schools just requires the board and leadership to establish a culture of integrity, accountability, transparency, continuous improvement, and adherence to established standards.

Your board can do that, can’t it?

- Dr Stephen Codrington

We offer support for schools with strategic planning and many other areas of effective governance.  We also support boards that seek to improve their effectiveness by undertaking board performance reviews.

Further information on these and many other facets of best practice in school leadership and governance is provided in the book “Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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