Social Normalization of Deviance

Sounds naughty, doesn’t it? It is, in a way.

Social Normalization of Deviance is a sociological theory identified and defined by Diane Vaughan a professor from Columbia University. Vaughan defines it this way: “people within [an] organization become so…accustomed to a deviant behavior that they don’t consider it deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for elementary safety.” To people outside the organization – the acts seem blatantly deviant, or against the norms of safety and best practices.

If to err is human – consider this the scope creep of humanity. People inside of a company can grow accustomed to behavior that is outside the accepted norms. Usually, in hindsight, everyone can look back and identify seemingly normal behavior that was actually pretty risky.

A familiar example of social normalization of deviance is as simple as a seat belt. We all know we are supposed to wear a seat belt. They have laws about it. Cute safety campaigns about it. Signs to remind you along the roadway. It is generally accepted that the safe thing to do is wear a seat belt when in a motor vehicle.

Now, imagine someone getting in their car, not putting on a seatbelt, driving to their destination, and going about their day. Nothing bad happened. The person starts to think “hey, I’m only going a couple blocks – I don’t NEED to do that today.” They get to their destination and nothing bad happened. Time goes by, more trips without incidents and they grow more and more lax about seatbelts until months or years later they aren’t wearing one and they get t-boned at that intersection where the bushes are never cut back enough. That person gets hurt. Maybe really badly hurt – or worse.

“If only they had worn their seatbelt.”

Social normalization of deviance is not a singular instance of ‘not putting the seat belt on’ – it is all of the incidents and decisions that lulled that person into thinking it was optional and not a required necessity.

Social normalization of deviance can develop without anyone noticing. A good process or procedure can organically go bad unless it is routinely and constantly updated as the environment and situation changes. If people are doing things ‘the way they’ve always been done’ without regard to evolving facts of the situation then there is fertile ground for a foreshadowed accident.

How can you combat the social normalization of deviance in a distillery? Regular (and frequent) safety walks. Periodically reviewing your company’s procedures – all of them. Communication with your employees – safety meetings, safety data sheets, signage. Education (and continuing education) on the materials your employees work with, including their potential risks. Collaboration on process creation – so everyone has a stake in the goal of keeping everyone safe.

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