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NORMALIZATION OF DEVIANCE: A REAL RISK FOR ORGANIZATIONS?



"We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"-President Ronald Reagan, USA

 

On January 28, 1986, a horrific tragedy occurred when Space Shuttle Challenger launched by NASA exploded over the Atlantic Ocean tragically killing everyone on board. This incident was a major setback to NASA’s space program raising concerns over how a disaster of this magnitude could occur.

An organization having stringent regulations and safety measures still facing such a disaster was a cause of concern.

Was it a mistake or something bigger happened resulting in the tragedy?

In this blog, we will be examining what exactly happened and understand the theory of Normalization of deviance to understand better why such incidents occur and what organizations can learn from these incidents.

 

WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED ON THAT FATEFUL DAY?

William P. Rogers, Chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, in the Rogers Commission Report

"The Space Shuttle Challenger accident was caused by a failure in the joint between the two lower segments of the right Solid Rocket Motor. The specific failure was the destruction of the seals that are intended to prevent hot gases from leaking through the joint during the propellant burn of the rocket motor."

 

Basically, a stream of hot gases was released due to the failure of the seal, igniting an external fuel tank which triggered an explosion. There was reliable evidence that erosion of the O ring was a serious issue and cold temperatures in the vicinity of the spacecraft could pose a serious problem to the safety of the flight crew.

Note: O-rings are a type of mechanical seal typically used to close the space between two surfaces, preventing the leakage of fluids or gases.

 

Engineers who manufactured the rocket gave clear indications that the launch should happen when temperatures were sufficiently warm, however on the day of the launch the temperatures were hovering in the cold spectrum. Source info here.

 

The most plausible question that needs answers is if the erosion of O rings was already known and the engineers had already warned about the cold take-off conditions then why did the take-off take place anyway?

It is like deliberately crossing a red signal despite clear danger.

Now let’s come to the theory of normalization of deviance to better understand why this happened.


THEORY OF NORMALIZATION OF DEVIANCE

"Normalizations of deviance can be relatively harmless or even dangerous, depending on the context." - Diane Vaughan, Sociologist


As per the theory of Normalization of Deviance, in most organizations, some risks are accepted as an overall part of doing business. The erosion of O-rings was evident on the challenger and earlier flights as well, but it was considered routine as no disaster struck.

NASA’s decision to go ahead with the launch despite new concerns on O-rings, showed how those risks had been accepted and they had been accepted in such a manner that it was not considered abnormal. Source info here.

Launching the spacecraft despite being warned about colder weather showed the extent of normalization, that to go ahead despite the risks.

In fact, NASA’s actions were normalized which resulted in the disaster.

 

How does the normalization of deviance work?

 

Initial Deviance: At the outset, certain behaviours or practices may be seen as deviant or abnormal because they contradict established social norms or values. These behaviours may be viewed as taboo or morally wrong by society.

 

Exposure and Familiarization: As individuals are exposed to these deviant behaviours or ideas, they may become more familiar with them. Exposure can occur through various means, such as media representation, personal interactions, or changes in social contexts.

 

Desensitization: Over time, repeated exposure to deviant behaviours can lead to desensitization, where individuals become less shocked or alarmed by them. Desensitization can contribute to the gradual acceptance of behaviours that were once considered deviant.

 

Normalization: As deviant behaviours become more commonplace and accepted within society, they may begin to be perceived as normal or even desirable. This normalization process can be reinforced by factors such as socialization, peer influence, and cultural shifts.

 

Integration into Social Norms: Eventually, once a behaviour has been normalized, it may become integrated into the fabric of social norms and values. This integration can involve changes in laws, policies, and cultural attitudes to accommodate the once-deviant behaviour.


WHAT CAN ORGANIZATIONS DO TO PROTECT AND TAKE STEPS AGAINST GAPJIL?

"Preventing the normalization of deviance requires a commitment to continuous improvement, open communication, and a willingness to challenge complacency." - Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, retired airline pilot and safety advocate.

 

Protecting against the normalization of deviance requires a proactive approach to promoting a culture of safety, accountability, and continuous improvement within the organization. Here are some strategies that organizations can implement:

 

Establish Clear Standards and Expectations: Clearly define acceptable norms, behaviours, and standards within the organization. This includes establishing policies, procedures, and guidelines for safety, quality, and ethical conduct.

 

Promote a Culture of Transparency: Encourage open communication and transparency at all levels of the organization. Employees should feel comfortable reporting concerns, raising issues, and sharing feedback without fear of retaliation.

 

Encourage Active Participation: Foster a culture where employees actively identify and address potential risks and deviations from established norms. Encourage participation in safety committees, incident reporting systems, and continuous improvement initiatives.

 

Implement Robust Oversight and Monitoring: Establish mechanisms for monitoring and oversight to identify deviations from established norms and detect potential warning signs of normalization deviance. This may include regular audits, inspections, and performance evaluations.

 

Regularly Review and Update Policies and Procedures: Periodically review and update organizational policies, procedures, and practices to reflect changing regulatory requirements, industry standards, and lessons learned from past experiences.

By implementing these strategies, organizations can help prevent the normalization of deviance and maintain a strong culture of safety, integrity, and accountability throughout the organization.


CONCLUSION

An organization may collapse if deviancy is accepted and established norms are no longer followed.

As we saw in the case of NASA, though the erosion of O-rings was risky they became an acceptable behavior as if nothing major.

An organization impacted by normalization of deviance is not only at risk due to a disaster but even an impact can be observed in the basic operations as well. As established norms are not being followed, quality drops impacting customer expectations.

As an organization are you willing to take this risk?

 

Gorisco has a wide range of experts who are experienced in defining and designing various solutions to help organizations mitigate their risks and resolve their problems.

At Gorisco, our motto is 'Embedding Resilience,’ and we are committed to making the organizations and their workforce resilient. Reach out to us if you have any queries, clarifications, or need any support on your initiatives.

To read our other blogs, click here. More importantly, let us know if you liked them or not through your comments

 







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