President's Column

Building Positive Communities

Paul T. P. Wong
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
Trent University

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 onto oneself?

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 building.

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, pp. 1-8.)

Defining Characteristics of Community in the Workplace

  1. Shared vision developed as a shared vision of the future.
  2. Common values that are mutually identified and upheld.
  3. Boundaries for keeping the organization’s tension under control in order to assure the collective commitment to the shared vision and values.
  4. 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.
  5. Responsibility sharing through cooperation, team building, and participation.
  6. Strategies to foster spiritual, intellectual, and emotional growth and development that produce psychological well-being.
  7. Tension reduction through conflict management both internally as well as with external communities.
  8. Education and training in shared community values, decision-making, governance, responsibility, growth and development, and tension reduction.
  9. Feedback, which continuously monitors and corrects community performance against stated objectives.
  10. 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 Aside

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 bureaucratic control.

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 service strategies.
  • 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 community.

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 Journey.)

It is encouraging that an increasing number of non-profit organizations are devoted to community building. Some of the examples are: Communitarian Network, Foundation 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 the oppressed.

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

Scott Peck has developed a process to guide groups of people through four stages of community building.

  1. Pseudo-community – Members maintain the psudo-civility of traditional diplomacy, and pretend that they don’t have major differences.
  2. 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 creativity.
  3. Emptying – At the stage, members agree to suspend their own rigidly held positions, and express their willingness to consider new ways of thinking.
  4. Genuine community – Members learn to renew their own visions and enjoy working together to resolve problems and issues.

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 on Dialogue 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 change.

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.
  2. Identification 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.
  3. Listening – 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 opposing views.

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 city!

Technology is now available to create truly interactive online communities that copy the real world. For example, Sims Online allows thousands of players to create Sims and control their lives. 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 building.


Bohm, D. (1996). Dialogue. London: Routledge.

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: Jossey-Bass.

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 & Shuster.

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 & Sons.