What is Normal?

Most of us use the term “normal” on a regular basis.  A summer shower, rush hour traffic, or our favorite team blowing a lead at the end of the game might all be judged as “normal.”  Normal is used to describe something that is regular, usual, and typical.  Normal is comfortable since it is expected and is very personal since it is defined by our own frame of reference.  When we encounter something that is different than what we consider normal, it leads to a combined sense of curiosity and discomfort.  Think about how exciting and surprising visiting a new place for the first time can be.  The mix of anticipation, anxiety, and excitement is a feeling like few others.

Just as in our personal lives, we use normal on a regular basis as a standard for comparison in the workplace.  How often have you talked about an employee’s behavior, work product, or attitude as being normal? Similarly, most of us use normal as a benchmark for judging people’s personal characteristics compared to our own.  I recently worked with a manager that complained that no one that worked for her was normal.  She went into great detail about what a normal employee should be like: arrive early, stay late, finish assignments faster than each time than the time before, place personal below professional demands, and never question leadership and their decisions.  With great detail, she was able to describe how each of her six employees failed to meet her definition of normality.  Although she was comfortable as well as capable of living to this standard, others could not.

As we discussed what normal means, three core concerns with normal kept coming up that are applicable to us all:

  • Normal may not be normal
  • Going with the crowd is not always best
  • Normal is getting smaller

Normal May Not Be Normal

Since most of us measure normal by our own experience and ideas, we may find that we are less normal than we think if normal is defined as what is most common among others.  In other words, our typical may not be the typical for most other people.  Moreover, when we base normal on what is most common, we have to consider that normal is the most occurring result across a collection of events or occurrences.  For example, someone can still have a normal temperature even if it is not 98.6 exactly.  As a result, making the assumption that something is abnormal just because it is different than how we would address the issue or is viewed as common may overlook not only what is normal, but the best alternative or interpretation.

Going with the Crowd is Not Always Best

The final danger of using normal as the standard is that it may lead to less than an optimal level of performance or outcome.  If I want to be normal, I need to emulate the crowd or the central tendency of my organization.  Unless an organization is at the forefront in its industry, being like the crowd means that I am targeting the average as my goal.  Most leaders spend their time trying to move employees from the mean to the upper 10 percent of performers not adding to the center 80 percent.

Normal is Getting Smaller

Over the last few decades, normal has shrunk in breadth of the phenomenon and outcomes it encompasses.  Where normal represented a fair variation in behaviors, outcomes, or expectations in the past, today more alternative explanations are being used to explain what would have been normal in the past.  Medicine affords a typical example: periodic unhappiness has become depression while almost any type of mischief has become attention deficit disorder.  A big reason for this change is our relative obsession with normal being as close to ourselves as possible.

How we define and use normal as a standard plays a role in our as well as our organization’s success.  Next time you want to measure something against normality, make sure it will give you the result you want.

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