January 1, 2010

The Many C's of Community

The idea of community became pervasive in recent years, expanding significantly from its generally understood reference to people residing in a particular geographic area. We have online communities, companies creating customer communities, and professional or industry communities as parts of nonprofit professional societies. And each of these communities has many smaller niche groupings within it.

Much has been written about what attracts and sustain communities, but for me, the essence can be found in four C's.

Concern: People join together in community because of common concern. It could be a threat they want to guard against, an ideal they want to advance, a purpose in which they believe, or an opportunity they wish to seize. Leaders must have a strong understanding of the concern that unites the community and the nuances and varied perspectives of the individuals within it.

Care: Because the community has a common concern, its members care about individuals' choices individuals related to it. A local neighborhood has safety as a concern so individual residents leave their outside lights on at night. But not everyone cares the same way or to the same degree. Helping the community explore the appropriate level of care and how it should be demonstrated as a member of the community is a key leadership behavior.

Create: Unifying the diverse skills, perspectives, and interests of a community can allow individuals to create something collectively that would have been difficult or impossible to achieve unilaterally. Individuals and communities resent institutions and policies or practices they see as impeding the community's desire to create solutions around its concerns and/or getting in the way of—or making it difficult—for people to act on their caring. Leaders must remove obstacles that deter a community's concerns from expression, its caring from demonstration, or its creative solutions from implementation. Failure to do so could incite strong resistance or rebellion, as well as individuals channeling their care and creativity to other institutions or communities.

Commitment: Communities have some form of ethical consciousness: we don't do things like that around here. Be they unwritten but understood norms or clearly articulated codes of conduct, a critical element of a sustainable community is a commitment to a way of being with others. Leaders should be careful to avoid dictating or over-managing these norms from above; instead, making it easier for the community to articulate its values and self-regulate its behaviors.

Community is a spirit that resides within every individual, but it is manifested in very personal choices. As such, I'm not a big of fan of committees or task forces developing strategies for building community in organizations. It feels forced and inauthentic when it should be more organic. Just as organic farmers don't use pesticides or other artificial forms of crop manipulation, neither should organizations attempt to overly manufacture communities and their efforts. Leaders and institutions, can and should however, make it easy for like-minded individuals to connect, convene, converse, create, and celebrate together.

For more thinking on community, I highly recommend Peter Block's recent book, Community: The Structure of Belonging.

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