Changing Culture by Changing Norms

UNHCR Innovation Service
The Arc
Published in
16 min readSep 2, 2020

Illustration by Hans Park

By Annie Neimand, Ph.D.

In an effort to move past communication strategies that simply “raise awareness” of an issue, the UN Refugee Agency and the University of Florida partnered to better understand how science can connect individuals with calls to actions that will result in lasting difference on the issues that matter most.This research project shares theory and science that helps us understand how people think and act, and is designed to help you incorporate those insights into your work.

Innovation requires culture change, which means we have to change how people think. While it’s tempting to assume that we need to change how they think about innovation, the reality is more subtle. Social norms theory tells us that we need to focus on shifting their perception of how others think about innovation. Whether it is changing the narrative people have in their minds about a particular issue, or inspiring a community to start doing something they have not done before, academic research helps us narrow in on promising approaches for the type of change we hope to make.

This is particularly true for making space for innovation within a community. When new ways of working challenge behaviors that feel safe and comfortable, people may hesitate to adopt the change. Building a culture of innovation means we have to change how people think (this is the way we have always done it, or this is what others in my community are doing) and the actions they take (this is what we have to do to achieve our goals), with a particular emphasis on their understanding of what people they see as being like them do.

Within many large institutions, such as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), we may adhere to norms without realizing we’re doing it. However, if we can understand how norms are transmitted, we can build an environment for the creation of new norms.

Norms are formal and informal rules that influence our behavior in different contexts. For example, a formal norm around hiring practices at an organization might involve following an institutionalized protocol, and an informal norm might involve the hiring committee preferring candidates with similar backgrounds to them.

We learn norms from three different sources.

  • First, we learn norms…

UNHCR Innovation Service
The Arc
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The UN Refugee Agency's Innovation Service supports new and creative approaches to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and the future.