If you are like most of us, you’ve worked a stint in a company with a toxic culture. When we’re in these situations, it’s shocking how quickly we learn to adapt. What once seemed unacceptable becomes commonplace. The perniciousness seeps into our behaviors, impairs our decision making, and drastically increases the amount of discomfort we are willing to tolerate. This ability to negatively acclimate has recently been rebranded to a name that seems more fitting—normalizing.
Normalizing is a social process in which an idea considered to be “normal” is altered and a new form of the idea is accepted. In and of itself, this does not seem so bad. However, “normalizing” is not the same as “improving” or “progressing.”
While standards change with time and what’s considered “normal” is subjective, to normalize is to reduce the norm, to lower our standards. It is to put up with things that, in the past, we would never have put up with. In an advantageous sense, it can be used as a coping mechanism to help us deal with death, chronic pain, or other times of misfortune. Unfortunately, it can also be used to in a more destructive fashion.
Normalizing occurs gradually and is often the result of being worn down by abnormal behavior. It’s exhausting to be told every day that something is horribly wrong, so when it continues for a longer duration, we allow these abnormalities to become increasingly customary. Remember when a President saying a profane word was shocking? Remember when it was scandalous for politicians to be caught telling boldfaced lies? Remember when international diplomacy transcended a tweet? Remember when sexual assault on a child was an immediate disqualifier from elected office?
Normalization, in this context, is typically cast as a form of complicity with Trump in which the highest possible premium is placed on maintaining a rigid state of alert and warning people that he is not just another politician whom you may or may not agree with on the issues.—Matt Yglesias
In addition to the diminishing of principles by which we live our lives, normalization can be a dangerous tool. According to Michel Foucault, who is credited with coining the term, normalization is often associated with disciplinary power and social control. It involves the construction of an idealized norm of conduct—for instance, the “proper” way to address superiors, treat co-workers, dress, conduct meetings, etc—and then rewarding or punishing that individual for conforming to or deviating from this standard. This may not be a concern if the leader is a moral, socially-minded individual; the problem is when he is not.
We are all susceptible to the effects of normalization; however, that does not mean we should torpidly allow it to overtake our consciousness. Consider these three ways to identify whether you’ve been normalized to an unfavorable situation.
Regain your perspective. There’s a recent story in the news about the President having an affair with a porn star. If any other President had committed infidelity with an adult film actress it would have been a front-page story with wall-to-wall coverage. Instead, we have normalized to such a low bar that this year-long affair seems to have faded away from public discourse before the end of a one-day news cycle. To mitigate this normalization, we must retain our foundational principles. Reflect on the ways in which you’ve dealt with past issues. Look back at prior “scandals” and compare them to your current situation.
Explore your hypocrisies. If it’s okay that Leader X does it, but it was unacceptable when Leader Y did it, recognize the double standard. Address your personal biases so maybe, just maybe, you can gain a more objective outlook.
Remain diligent. A constant barrage of negativity may weigh you down, but we cannot close our eyes the stream of bad news because it makes us sad—ignoring is the first steps towards normalizing. Once you start blocking it out, you are a small step away from acceptance.
As leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure that our organization’s ethical compass remains intact. We cannot allow our peers to lower the norms—one inch is all they need to lower it a foot, then a yard. Keep ringing the warning bells when normal is no longer normal. If you don’t, its only a matter of time until you no longer recognize your culture.