How to identify and nurture impactful communities in the workplace

A big part of what drew me to open source was the idea that the movement was built around a community. Having grown up in church, summer camp, and hostels, I knew that participating in communities made me feel like I was at home (I also come from a big family).

In the 2020s the idea of community is everywhere. You have online communities, gaming communities, brand communities, intentional communities, communities of practice, and more.

Often times the word seems to mean roughly “a group of people who are interested in a certain thing”.

Interest is necessary but insufficient

I’d say that this definition of community is inadequate for people who are thinking about community as it relates to impact.

If you are interested in how communities achieve impact, either inwardly on their members or outwardly on the world, interest in something is necessary but insufficient.

To identify potential impactful communities in your work place (or from some group of people) you need a way to bring together people with 3 things in common.

Three building blocks of impactful community

  1. Shared interest: This the thing they all care about. Could be an idea (i.e. diversity, equity, and inclusion), or an activity (i.e. bowling), or a skill (i.e. functional programming).
  2. Compatible values: Their worldviews, internal motivators, and conflict resolution norms must be similar enough to allow them to have potentially contentious discussions without precluding ongoing discussion and collaboration.
  3. Willingness to actively participate: They must be willing to take some action in support of the community and / or its goals. It doesn’t have to be big, it just has to be effort expended towards an outcome.

Two out of three is not enough

If they have shared interest and compatible values, but no willingness to participate, this group is unlikely to expend effort to actually achieve anything together.

If they have shared interest and willingness to participate, but no compatible values; this group is unlikely to form a sufficiently stable organization to achieve anything together.

If they have compatible values and willingness to participate, but no shared interest, this group is unlikely to form a common vision of something they’d like to achieve together.

Provide opportunities to demonstrate community

To identify and nurture communities in your workplace, you need to provide opportunities for people to come together and demonstrate those three things.

One advantage you have when trying to build community within a pre-existing context (i.e. workplace) is that you can often shortcut the “values” part and piggyback whatever values are common to the context you are operating in. That leaves shared interest and willingness to participate.

As the would-be community builder, you can use the nature of the opportunity you are providing to identify shared interest. A tech talk series draws people who are interested in technology and sharing information. Toastmasters draws people who are interested in becoming better public speakers. Women’s leadership communities draw people who are interested in gender equity. And so on.

Willingness to participate is something you have to actually watch for. People who come along and consume are potential community members; the people who come along and help set up, or give presentations, or take notes, or ask questions are actual community members. Take note of these, find ways to engage and involve them further, build the vision of what the community will be and do with them. Focus on growing and supporting this group, and your communities will thrive.

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