Yes, I have written and spoken about normalization of deviation before. But today I hope to convince you that normalization of deviation DOES NOT EXIST.

What is “Normalization of Deviation”? (Or sometimes referred to as normalization of deviance.) In an interview, Diane Vaughan, Sociology Professor from Ohio State University, said:

Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behaviour that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety.

Let’s think about this for a moment. What defines deviation or deviance?

To deviate means to depart from a set path.

In a country, the government’s rules or laws set the path.

In a company, management usually sets the path. Also, management usually conforms to the regulations set by the government.

To say that there is normalization of deviation means that the normal course of doing business is to follow the rules, regulations, and laws.

Let’s look at a simple example: the speed limit.

When Jimmy Carter was President, he convinced Congress to pass a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour. He did this because there was an oil shortage and he declared the conservation of oil to be the “moral equivalent of war.”

What happened?

Violating the speed limit became a national pastime. Can you remember the popular songs? Sammy Hagar sang “I can’t drive 55.”  There was C.W. McCall signing “Convoy.”

And the most famous of all? The movie “Smoky and the Bandit” with Burt Reynolds and Sally Fields …

How many laws did they break?

One might think that this is just a rare example. The rule (55 mph speed limit) was just too strict and people rebelled.

Take a minute to consider what you observe … who breaks the rules?

  • Drivers
  • Teenagers
  • Politicians
  • Executives
  • Pilots
  • Nurses
  • Police
  • Teachers
  • Judges
  • Doctors
  • Clergy

You can probably remember a famous example for each of these classes of people above where rule breaking was found to be common (or at least not so uncommon).

You might ask yourself … Why do people break the rules? If you ask people why they break the rules you will hear the following words used in their replies:

  • Unnecessary
  • Burdensome
  • Just for the inexperienced
  • Just once
  • They were just guidelines
  • Everybody does it

My belief is that rule breaking is part of human nature. We often work the easiest way, the quickest way, the way with the least effort, to get things done.

Thus deviation from strict standards is NOT unusual. Deviation is NORMAL!

This there is no “Normalization of Deviation” … the abnormal state is getting everyone to follow strict rules.

  • To follow the procedure as written
  • To always wear PPE
  • To follow the speed limit
  • To pay every tax
  • To never sleep on the job (to stop nodding off on the back shift or at a boring meeting)

Thus, instead of wondering why “Normalization of Deviation” exists and treating it like an abnormal case, we should see that we have to do something special to get the abnormal state of a high performance organization to exist.

What we now want is an abnormal state of an extremely high performance organization that we try to establish with strict codes of behavior that are outside our normal experience (or human nature).

How do you establish this high performance organization with high compliance with strict standards? That’s a great question and the topic for another article that I will write in the future.

Read Part 2: Stop Normalization of Deviation with Normalization of Excellence