President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
Community is a good thing. Who does not yearn
for love and belonging? Who is immune to the existential anxiety
of separation and alienation? Who can survive long as an island
The benefits of community are indeed plenty,
but being part of a group also involves risks. For one thing, a
strong collectivist orientation may deprive individuals of their
rights for privacy and selfhood. Herein lies the tension in community
In this brief essay, I will (a) look at some
of the benefits of and obstacles to community building, (b) identify
some of the requirements for creating positive communities, and
(c) challenge people to think creatively about community building.
Community is good for business
Community has become a new buzz word in business
in the midst of intense competition. This is ironical because competition
is inherently incompatible with cooperation, which is essential
to community building, both locally and globally.
Nevertheless, within the microcosm of individual
corporations, management recognizes the benefit of creating a sense
of interconnectedness within the organization, because community
spirit can improve morale and productivity. Most of Fortune Magazine's
best companies to work for enjoy some success in creating a community
spirit of working together to achieve a common goal.
In an excellent anthology edited by Karzimierz
Gozdz (1996), 43 authors, including such as prominent authors as
Peter Senge, Amitai Etzioni, and Scott Peck. It covers various aspects
of community building, such as Marvin Weisbord's Discovering Common
Ground, and John Nirenberg's The Living Organization.
A positive community in the workplace includes
the following characteristics as described by Naylor, et al., (1966,
Defining Characteristics of Community in the
- Shared vision developed as a shared vision
of the future.
- Common values
that are mutually identified and upheld.
- Boundaries for keeping the organization's
tension under control in order to assure the collective commitment
to the shared vision and values.
- Empowerment involving the creation of a system
of governance and a community decision making process which enables
all community members to share equally in setting the direction
and influencing the organization.
- Responsibility sharing through cooperation,
team building, and participation.
- Strategies to foster spiritual, intellectual,
and emotional growth and development that produce psychological
- Tension reduction through conflict management
both internally as well as with external communities.
- Education and training in shared community
values, decision-making, governance, responsibility, growth and
development, and tension reduction.
- Feedback, which continuously monitors and
corrects community performance against stated objectives.
- Friendship in an environment that encourages
friendships to develop among mangers, among employees, and between
managers and employees.
It is quite obvious from the above list that
shared decision-making, accountability, frequent feedback, and friendship
are important building blocks of a genuine, productive community.
The challenge is how to achieve such a community
without sacrificing individual freedom. One thing is for sure -
it cannot be willed into existence simply by a decree from the top.
Nothing kills a community faster than the voice of a dictatorial
CEO playing God.
Authoritarian hierarchy needs to be put
There is now increasing consensus that one of
the biggest hindrances to community building is authoritarian hierarchy.
A tall and rigid hierarchy structure does not allow broad-based
participatory democracy, which is the foundation for community building.
Management's song and dance routines, such as a company-sponsored
picnic or Christmas dinner, cannot undo the damage of hierarchy.
The fundamental fact is that a corporate culture of hierarchical
and bureaucratic control is not capable of nurturing community spirit.
Scott Peck (1997), one of the most influential
pioneers in this area, emphasizes that in building a genuine community,
"control is relinquished and traditional hierarchy is set aside"
(p.72). Kouzes and Posner (1993) have also pointed out "In a productive
work community, leaders are not commanders and controllers, bosses
and big shots. They are supporters, partners and providers"(p.7.).
Stan Richards and David Culp (2001) have shown
that it is necessary to break down conventional hierarchies in order
to be successful in a rapidly changing world. Their success in building
a fast-growing advertising agency rests on some practices such as
treating workers with humanity and good common sense, maintaining
a loose, organic structure, and insisting on frequent, direct and
universal communication within the organization.
Community is good for society
Community building is also viewed as an antidote
to the fragmentation of society and the breakdown of social institutions.
Grass-roots involvement in urban renewal and the fight against poverty
is seen as a promising alternative to bigger governments and greater
Community based initiatives encourage citizens
to serve each other and work together to pursue common goals. To
succeed, these initiatives need to be sensitive to common aspirations,
and attentive to the importance of social capital.
Some of the principles of community development
recommended by the National
Community Building Network include:
- Integrate community development and human
- Forge partnerships through collaboration.
- Build on community strengths.
- Start from local conditions.
- Foster broad community participation.
- Require social equality.
- Value cultural strengths.
- Support families and children.
Many of the community endeavors are faith-based.
Salvation Army is probably one of the most visible and successful
religious organizations in providing social services to the entire
A much smaller but unique faith-based community
is the Daybreak
L'Arche community in Canada. Henry Nouwen left behind a prestigious
professorship in Harvard to serve and live with those with intellectual
disabilities at L'Arche. (His inspiring story can be found in his
book The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual
It is encouraging that an increasing number
of non-profit organizations are devoted to community building. Some
of the examples are: Communitarian
for Global Community; Foundation
for Community Encouragement; and Society
for Organizational Learning. The most promising sign is that
more and more young people are taking part in community services;
some are being trained as leaders in community building.
Hindrances to community building
Since community is so beneficial, why is it
so difficult to create and maintain one? Whenever a group of people
are together for a long time, conflicts are inevitable. Is it because
of individual differences in cultures, temperaments, styles and
needs? Yes, but the problem is deeper - egotism a big part of the
problem, and authoritarian hierarchy is based on egotistic pride.
A great human tragedy is that people cannot
live together in peace. The entire human history testifies to this
tragedy. Some of the most brilliant philosophers, psychologists,
sociologists, political scientists, religious thinkers and visionaries
have prescribed solutions. Most of these ideas have been tested
and found wanting. (A proper examination of this topic would require
a book-length treatment.)
Requirements for community building
Basically, there are two approaches. One is
to change the social system in order to usher in an era of justice
and peace. An alternative approach is to change the individual in
order to create a better community.
Both approaches are necessary. We need to do
away with any form of authoritarian hierarchical systems; such systems
invariably separate people into two classes - the privileged and
We are also need to educate individuals regarding
the danger of egotism, as well as the importance of personal and
civil virtues. Without such universal virtues as honesty, trust,
compassion, forgiveness, love, respect, tolerance and responsibility,
community will forever remain an illusion.
Another important requirement is balance. There
are no hard and fast rules of maintaining a balancing act because
of ever shifting dynamics. However, one needs to be forever vigilant
to the need of balancing between the following sets of opposites:
- Individual rights versus group interests
- Competition versus cooperation
- Individual freedom versus rules and boundaries
- Group cohesiveness versus diversity of membership
- Minority culture versus dominant culture
- Profits versus ethical concerns
- Needs of the group versus social responsibility
- Local commitment versus global connections
- Short-terms gains versus long-term benefits
Stages of community building
Peck has developed a process to guide groups of people through
four stages of community building.
- Pseudo-community - Members maintain the psudo-civility
of traditional diplomacy, and pretend that they don't have major
- Chaos - Members may feel that the situation
is out of control, as people begin to express their different
opinions. However, these conflicting ideas become a source of
- Emptying - At the stage, members agree to
suspend their own rigidly held positions, and express their willingness
to consider new ways of thinking.
- Genuine community - Members learn to renew
their own visions and enjoy working together to resolve problems
According to Scott Peck, going through the stages
can be a transformative, spiritual experience for the individuals
as well as for the group. The insights and skills gained can be
applied to other social situations.
Dialogue as a tool for community building
Glenna Gerard and Linda Teurfs, in their paper
and Organizational Transformation, describe how dialogue can
move people through the four stages of community building. Dialogue
can also help create a behavioral, experiential and attitudinal
transformation of organizations.
The word dialogue stems from Greek roots "dia"
and "logos", which literally mean "through meaning". It is intended
to promote the discovery of shared meaning through building trust,
and communicating with respect and sincerity.
Popularized by David Bohm (1996), dialogue is
a mode of communication that explores the process whereby thoughts
are generated and developed at the collective level. It is aimed
at exploring in depth any subject manner of interest to the group.
It explores how collective thinking shapes the culture of a group.
One of dialogue's primary objectives is to affect a transformation
in collective consciousness, with the potential for organizational
Guidelines for dialogue
These guidelines provide a new set of principles
and skills of interactions, which are important in community building.
1. Suspension of
judgment - Intentionally put aside our biases and agenda
about how things out to be, and how we can prevail over others.
By putting aside our rigidly held opinions, we become more open
to other views and perspectives. This step is essential in creating
a climate of openness.
of assumptions - We need to closely re-examine our own judgment
by looking at the underlying assumptions and beliefs, which often
place blinders on our eyes and lead us to making wrong decisions.
When we are able to identify our own assumptions, and understand
how they differ from others, we can then get to the bottom of misunderstandings
and conflicts. This will allow us to build common ground and explore
the possibility of reconciling some of the different assumptions.
- This is perhaps the most important yet least understood communication
skill. It is even more than active listening. One needs to learn
how to read people and situations beyond the superficial level.
It requires the skill to remain fully psychologically present and
to be open and attentive to subtle and quick changes in meaning
at the individual and collective levels.
4. Inquiry and
reflection - This is the process of digging deeper into matters
of concern. It involves the skill to ask the appropriate probing
questions, the skill to work with silence. In fact, the group may
be asked to stop talking to allow contemplative silence. Often,
new thoughts are generated during these periods of silence.
These skills can transform debate to dialogue,
and conflict to cooperation. Therefore, they can be immensely useful
in building bridges and promoting understanding between groups with
How would you create an ideal community?
If you had a magic wand, what would you do
to create an ideal community? How would you incorporate the above
ideas in your plan?
With the video game SimCity, you can play mayor
and play God. You have all the power and resources to build your
dream city, with parks, schools, efficient public transit systems,
and all the amenities that technology allows. You are only limited
by your imagination.
But how do you turn a beautiful city into an
ideal community, in which individuals work together and contribute
to each other's well-being? What actions would you take to prevent
Main Street from being turned into a Mean Street by mobsters and
low lives? How do you educate children so that they grow up to be
virtuous individuals, who fulfill their civic duties? What measures
do you take to ensure that people have equal opportunities and fair
access to vital resources? How do you keep corruption, greed, and
the abuse of power out of the public life?
You cannot create a paradise simply by building
churches, synagogues and schools. Nor can you wipe out poverty and
crimes simply by creating sufficient jobs for everyone. Building
a positive community is much more challenging than building a beautiful
Technology is now available to create truly
interactive online communities that copy the real world. For example,
allows thousands of players to create Sims and control their lives.
There.com empowers personal avatars (simulated three-dimensional
figures) to act and "talk" through keyboarding in statements.
Potentially, these massive multi-person persistent
online games (MMPOG) allow millions of people to log on indefinitely
and create different kinds of communities. Are there people who
could create a peaceful, productive and fulfilling community on
the Net? Potentially, this would be a helpful way to experiment
with different parameters of building positive communities.
Community is a fragile gift, and a delicate
ecosystem. It takes a great deal of skill and virtue to maintain
it, but it can be destroyed instantly by betrayal or deception.
Cool tolerance and proper distance may be more
stabilizing than compassion and love, but what kind of community
would we have without intimate relationships? We just have to learn
how to live and work together and grant each other grace when we
accidentally step on someone's toe.
Once we have achieved a genuine community, our
lives will be so much more meaningful and fulfilling. And we will
pay a very costly price, when we allow egotism ruin it. World peace
and sustainable development may rest on nothing more than community
Bohm, D. (1996). Dialogue.
Gozdz, K. (Ed.) (1996).
Community Building: Renewing Spirit and Learning in Business.
New Leaders Press.
Kouzes, J.M., & Posner, B.Z. (1993). Credibility:
How leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it. San Francisco:
Naylor, T. H., Willimon, W. W., Osterberg, R.
V. (1996). The search for meaning
in the workplace. Abigon Press.
Nouwen, H. J. M. (1988). The
road to Daybreak: A spiritual journey. New York: Doubleday.
Peck, S. (1997). The
different drum: Community making and peace. New York: Simon
Richards, S. & Culp, D. (2001). The
peaceful kingdom: Building a company without factionalism, fiefdoms,
fear and other staples of modern business. N. Y. John Wiley