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  • Writer's pictureHubert Saint-Onge

The Case For Building A Sense Of Community In Organizations

By Hubert Saint-Onge



The post-Covid era is playing havoc with more familiar labour force patterns. I regularly speak with senior leaders who feel that the sense of belonging amongst their employees has eroded in the last few years. Surveys now show that these leaders are right to be concerned.


A McKinsey survey conducted in the spring of 2022 reported that 35% of US workers work from home full-time, and 23% work from home part-time. This overhang from the Covid period brings significant challenges for employers and employees that have yet to be dealt with fully. But this is only the more factual tip of the iceberg, the changes go deeper. Many employees stay in touch with those with whom they are closest but are experiencing more distant ties with most of their colleagues. LinkedIn has recently shared concerning attitudinal stats: 85% of American professionals are looking for a new role in a different organization and 67% report low engagement in their current organization. As many as 50% of the professionals surveyed said their level of engagement was so low that they were putting in minimal effort in their work. Essentially, these people have ‘quit and stayed’ until they can get a job that better meets their needs.  Even though they are not part of the attrition stats, they likely soon will be. These patterns point to a significant contingent of the employee population showing a systematic weakening of attachment to their work organization.  The available research is clear: engagement is highly correlated with connectedness to people in the organization, and retention is highly correlated with engagement.


Even though most see symptoms of these issues, senior leaders are often unclear about how to remedy the situation. In a previous blog on retention strategy, I proposed that environments with a strong sense of community foster higher trust, respect, empathy, cooperation, engagement and greater employee attachment to the organization. Yet, a sense of community represents a relatively nebulous concept that seems daunting to implement.  In this blog, I outline how a shared sense of community and mutual accountability for the organization's success creates meaning for employees and deepens their commitment.  I also describe how leaders can build a stronger sense of community in their organizations. 


What does having a sense of community in the organization mean?


Henry Mintzberg defines community as “people’s sense of belonging to and caring for something larger than themselves… it means caring about our work, our colleagues, and our place in the world… and in turn being inspired by this caring.” People have a strong sense of community when they are part of something they value and find inspiration and belonging in the solidarity they experience with colleagues.  Their engagement springs from shared ownership for the success of the organization as a whole.


Connectedness across the organization provides team members with a context where they see the bigger picture and collaborate across work groups and functions. With collaboration and the more proactive management of interdependence comes greater fluidity of capability, agility and speed.  Greater connectedness translates into organizations that move faster, are more innovative and ultimately achieve higher sustainable performance levels. This would be possible without a higher trust level permeating the organization.   


In places with little sense of community, people tend to congregate to complain about what is happening and create a negative context that feeds on itself. The organization risks going down a spiral if the leadership is at a loss on how to turn this around. This is when rekindling a sense of community represents a meaningful leadership intervention. A sense of community inspires a commitment to the success of individuals and the organization.  Strong communities have a sense of purpose. The coherence brought by mutual accountability contributes to the strength and resilience of an organization. It leads to increased attachment and higher retention rates across the board. Successful technology start-ups and scale-ups often bring this quality.  Inexorably, when they hit counter-winds in the marketplace, this sense of community erodes, and they find it difficult to rekindle it. Yet, their ongoing success often rests on their strength as a community.   


When does an organization provide a sense of community?


A sense of community manifests itself when people care about their contribution and the organization's success. They feel shared ownership for the success of the organization. They care for one another and their collective success.   They are inspired by being part of an organization they value. They espouse shared values that represent the social glue that binds the organization. They experience high levels of trust and psychological safety in which people know others will have their backs. When facing failures, they quickly build the capability to recover. They feel safe in taking initiative and readily collaborate with people across the organization.


They are confident that the organization values and respects them. They have the space to apply their talents and develop new ones. They find a higher purpose in fulfilling the worthwhile mission of their work organization.  This commitment fuels their interconnectedness across the organization. People trust one another. They know others will help them when they need it. The most impactful element of this environment is the tacit acceptance of mutual accountability where the pressure to perform comes from peers rather than managers. This is where autonomy, accountability and collaboration intersect. This factor alone will contribute significantly to the performance of the enterprise as a whole.


When they see flaws or things that don’t work, they have no hesitation in coming forward and being part of the solution. Without this sense of community, the organization's fabric does not have the strength and the resilience to deal with failures with collective resolve. Ultimately, the sense of community propels organizations to move faster and innovatively to overcome challenges as they arise and achieve higher sustainable performance levels.


The word gets around: an organization with a sense of community attracts talent. The interconnectedness of a strong community creates a level of collaboration that contributes to building and preserving talent.  A strong sense of community provides immunity against the paralyzing effects of attrition.   


Employees who feel part of a workplace community will trust one another more. This increased level of trust can lead employees to be more willing to collaborate, take other perspectives into account and share their viewpoints openly, which can significantly improve their ability to work together in an atmosphere that promotes trust.

The ultimate test of whether a company has become a true community is whether its people see themselves as responsible enterprise members who care for its success.


What undermines the sense of community in an organization?


Interpersonally akward leaders are generally responsible for contributing to weakening a sense of community with behaviours that include:

 

Taking an arbitrary, top-down and micromanaging approach robs people of a sense of ownership and self-initiation. As a result, team members feel that their contribution is not recognized and that they they just a “cog in the wheel”.


Behaving in a way that fosters cynicism on the part of their team members. People do not feel respected or recognized for their efforts and contributions. Cynicism is highly contagious in organizations and difficult to turn around.


Showing little interest in the development of their people: productivity and meeting objectives are their only concerns. People inherently expect that they should get an opportunity to enhance their capability in exchange for their dedication. They are clear that their capabilities and experience are the only basis for ensuring employment security for themselves.  When the ‘quid pro quo’ of dedication in exchange for development opportunities is out of balance, people feel cheated and become disengaged.


Focusing on functional segments of the organization as though they stand on their own without recognizing the interdependencies that are key to the enterprise's success. When encountering challenges in the marketplace, some leaders look to place the blame on one function or the other. For instance, Sales is often the focal point when revenues are down as though this function does not depend on the folks on engineering to generate new products, or on product management to create the specs for exciting new functionality clients will clamour to get, or on marketing that will create excitement in the market and generate productive leads. Calling upon everyone in the organization to pull themselves up by their ‘bootstraps’ with dignity and respect will challenge everyone to put forward their best effort.


The sense of community is undermined when the “leadership” stands apart from team members. Heroic leadership creates the perception of a we/they chasm. A short-term view prevails, and people are treated as a fungible commodity based on the quarterly results. The entirely predictable reaction is that people feel devalued. They start to believe that can be dropped without regard for their contribution. The trust reservoir is depleted by changes that make little sense to them.


Still above all, an important cause of community erosion is how leaders manage the current wave of layoffs across many economic sectors.  The reality of the rapidly changing market lends itself to cyclical ups and downs. Some businesses get hit more than others. Layoffs are sometimes unavoidable.  Depending on how they are handled, they can severely erode an organization’s sense of community.


A few years ago, the Centre for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC, surveyed employees' reactions to layoffs. Surprisingly, they found that people who were let go were hit hard when it first happened but then found positions that were a better fit and recovered soon after. On the other hand, those who stayed behind experienced a more strongly felt betrayal for a lot longer. Layoffs leave an indelible mark on an organization. The reaction is normal enough. Team members tell themselves  “Is this how I will be treated after trying hard to make it all work.”   The stronger their commitment to the community and their colleagues, the more critical they will be of the decisions made.


These findings explain why it is key for leaders who announce a layoff to be present with both the employees who leave and those who stay. They have to be empathetic and thoughtful, and speak from the heart about their commitment to all members of their community. This is not easy when explaining difficult decisions affecting those leaving and those losing close colleagues. Many leaders inadvertently end up causing severe harm to the sense of community in their organization if they don’t come close to employees and genuinely connect with them. Yet, many leaders feel uncomfortable with the situation and choose to stay away or speak through more distant electronic means. Inadvertently, they make it harder to themselves down the road. They will have to invest significantly more time and energy if they want to rekindle a sense of community after the layoffs.


Talent is rare. Exceptional talent, by definition, is even more scarce. If there was a time when people were dispensable and easily replaceable, it is certainly not now. As I wrote in a previous blog, a sense of community is the key factor preventing people from leaving an organization. People are generally aware that it is difficult to replace a work environment where there is a sense of community and belonging.


With increasing layoffs, the perception inside and outside organizations is that people have become fungible commodities—human resources to be “downsized” at the drop of a share price. There is often no choice given the performance of the organization. Layoffs should be a last option but, if it must take place, the leadership must actively be attuned to the impact on remaining employees and work hard to ‘re-kindle’ the sense of community.


The erosion of a sense of community rapidly spreads across the organization. Embattled leaders are not always aware the self-protecting distance they take from their team members. Instead of visibly working closely with people to help improve performance, they focus on goals they are counting on others to attain. Employees see through the thin veil of this attitude and respond in kind. Of course, we want people who are self-reliant and self-initiated. Still, it is essential to provide people across the organization with an organizational context where they experience a mutually supportive bond between them and their leaders. Without this bond, distrust sets in with a corrosive impact.   


How can leaders build a sense of community in an organization?


If they sense erosion to the sense of community, leaders must purposefully invest energy to build momentum to strengthen it without delay.  Once momentum is created, it will be self-generated, as long as leaders remain visibly supportive.  On-going

 commitment will spread across the organization when people realize the benefits for themselves and the organization.    


Leaders must create an organizational context with a shared understanding and commitment to the vision and the business strategy that supports it. People have to become crystal clear about both “what” and “how” the organization intends to achieve. This is realized by engaging people organization-wide through dialogue and exchange in a way that engenders a commitment and sense of ownership to meet strategic goals.  


Leaders must guide the evolution of the culture to support the shared values and the sense of community they aspire to instill across the organization. They must model high-integrity leadership and expect the same of everyone around them. People easily detect self-serving behaviour and quickly dismiss the intended messages.


Guided by a growth mindset supporting the need for everyone to grow, leaders give people opportunities to develop their capabilities. They take every opportunity to work horizontally and bring cross-functional teams together to foster mutual accountability and the active management of interdependencies across the whole organization.


What are the conditions to sustainably develop a greater sense of community?


Leaders must stay attuned to the strength of community spirit and intervene as required along the way. They will detect this need by being being attuned to how individuals care for one another’s success and how well team members collaborate across organizational boundaries to help one another succeed.  Leaders must keep an eye on whether people take pride in their collective success in overcoming challenges.


Distributed leadership can be an important element in building a sense of community. This is a collaborative approach where the exercise of more formal top-down leadership is counter-balanced with interconnectivity, teamwork and self-initiation. Everyone in the organization is invited to contribute innovative ideas or propose new projects in line with the organization’s strategic priorities. People are encouraged to exercise leadership when they see an opportunity to contribute to the organization's collective success, even in small ways. With the support of their managers, they can leverage expertise with team members to resolve issues or create new, more effective processes. Some of these leadership roles can eventually be formalized while others emerge temporarily as part of collaboration and teamwork.


One of the potential drawbacks of a strong sense of community is that it could pull everyone’s attention inward.  The organization must emphasize an outside-in approach to source ideas and connect with external stakeholders, primarily customers and

partners. Taking an outside-in view will validate some of the internally based thinking and bring new ideas. Whatever is done in an organization has to serve customers in one way or another. Customer intimacy can become the source of inspiration for new ideas that can bring new opportunities.


Most organizations' challenges are so complex that they require the complementarity of capabilities partners can bring. One thing is clear: organizations with difficulty partnering internally have great difficulty partnering externally. Partnering is second nature for organizations with a strong sense of community.  Organizations with a robust sense of community inherently know to build strong external partnerships.


In closing…


Henry Mintzberg defines community as “people’s sense of belonging to and caring for something larger than themselves.” The call to action is clear: companies with a drive to succeed must work to reengage their people by infusing their organization with a sense of community. For many, these have been difficult times where the sense of dispensability is pervasive, belongingness is hard to come by, and a broader sense of purpose appears to be on hold. The antidote is to infuse trust, energy and inspiration inclusively across the full breadth of the organization.  



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