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Author: Naylor, Thomas H.; Willimon, William H. Österberg, Rolf.

Source: Business and Society Review no97 (1996) p. 42-7 ISSN: 0045-3609 Number: BBPI97034305 Copyright: The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.


NO WORD APPEARS more often today in the literature on corporate human resources and organizational development than community. Everyone seems to be talking about the possibility and desirability of creating community in the workplace, but few have ever experienced real community or have any clue about how to go about building a community. What is a community? Is it possible to create a community in a private profit-making business, a government bureaucracy, or a nonprofit school, college, hospital, or charitable organization? How do we know whether a particular business or enterprise is a community or not? How does one go about building community in the workplace?

A community is a partnership of free people committed to the care and nurturing of each other’s mind, body, heart, and soul through participatory means. Despite all of the hype about community in the workplace, the gap between managers, who may also be the owners of a business, and the employees is often so great as to preclude the possibility of community. Confrontational labor-management relations do little to establish the kind of trust required to build community in the workplace.

However, in spite of our skepticism about the practical possibilities of achieving community in the workplace, we believe that community is an important goal for those seeking meaning there. About community building in the workplace, M. Scott Peck once said, “If Utopia is to emerge, it will do so primarily from the world of business.” Not unlike the search for meaning, community building is a slow and arduous process. Many are the obstacles to community — unabashed individuals, narcissism, authoritarianism, excessive inequality, distrust, alienation, competing interests, dependency, and size. Few have succeeded at it, but the potential rewards in the workplace are substantial. Community is about cooperation, sharing, commitment, communication, trust, justice, empowerment, adaptability, and tension reduction — values acclaimed by many but achieved by few.

We now turn our attention to 10 defining characteristics of community building in the workplace:

1. Shared vision — commitment to a shared vision of the future;

2. Common values — identification of common values and objectives;

3. Boundaries — definition of the community’s boundaries;

4. Empowerment — creation of a system of governance and a community decision-making process, which empowers all community members;

5. Responsibility sharing — implementation of a communitywide responsibility sharing system;

6. Growth and development — formulation of strategies for spiritual, intellectual, and emotional growth and development as well as physiological well-being;

7. Tension reduction — development of a conflict resolution mechanism to reduce tension among community members and between the community and those outside community boundaries;

8. Education — provision of members with education and training on community values, decision-making, governance, responsibility, growth and development, and tension reduction;

9. Feedback — implementation of an adaptive feedback control system which monitors community performance against objectives and adjusts community strategies accordingly; and

10. Friendship — creation of an environment, which encourages friendships to develop among managers, among employees, and between employees and managers.

Among the examples we shall consider to illustrate the characteristics of community are small Vermont towns and Rhino Foods. Rhino Foods is a small specialty frozen dessert, ice cream novelty, and ice cream ingredient manufacturer located in Burlington, Vermont, whose 60 employees enjoy a strong sense of community. Rhino promotes a so-called “dual bottom line” of profitability and social responsibility and has received national attention for its innovative employee exchange program — Rhino’s alternative to market-driven employee layoffs.

1. Shared vision. Perhaps the single most important element in a real community is a commitment by its members to a shared vision of the future. There must be a consensus among members on the answer to the question, what does the community want to be when it grows up? It may be one thing for Tom Chappell, founder and CEO of the natural toothpaste company Tom’s of Maine, to say “We believe our company can be financially successful while behaving in a socially responsible and environmentally sensitive manner,” but it is quite another thing for the hundred or so employees of the company to be committed to the same vision of the future.

The failure to reach agreement on the group’s mission has led to the demise of many a would-be community. If management’s vision of the future is grounded entirely on profits, stock options, executive bonuses, and special privileges, then community is impossible to achieve with a group of employees in search of job security, higher wages, and increased fringe benefits. Management and labor do not even speak the same language. The most clever organizational development consultant could not create community in such a divisive, zero-sum (my gain is your loss) environment. Community is about cooperation, not the achievement of mutually incompatible, unachievable wish lists.

In the words of Ted Castle, president and founder of Rhino Foods, “Community is never easy. It has to come from the heart. We struggle with it constantly — we live and breathe community.”

At Rhino the employees are organized in teams that play work-based games for which there are prizes and awards for “winning.” Successes and team victories are always “celebrated.”

2. Common values. Shared common values are another important characteristic of community. In workplace communities employees and managers alike view themselves as parts of an integrated whole pursuing, a common mission which is consistent with their own personal values. If there is nothing more to the business or the organization than each individual looking out only for his or her self-interest, then community will never be.

Cooperation, trust, and human empathy are among the shared values, which are vital to the formation and survival of communities. But the integration of such values into the workplace may be a slow and arduous process. Swiss and Austrian Alpine villages, which embrace these values, did not become communities overnight. Rather, they have evolved over hundreds of years. Many small New England towns and villages, which are committed to individualism, hard work, resourcefulness, versatility, and inventiveness, are more than 200 years old. Places such as Middlebury, Brattleboro, and Woodstock in Vermont and New London, New Hampshire, possess many of the characteristics we associate with real communities.

We are skeptical of organizational development consultants and “I’m okay, you’re okay” spiritual swamis who claim they can lead groups of 30 to 60 people into community through weekend community-building workshops. We believe that the results of such attempts at instant community building are more likely to be pseudo-community — pretend community — rather than enduring community. There are no shortcuts to community. We all say we want community, but do we want to risk the time and energy that community requires? Are we prepared to pay the price in terms of our cherished individualism necessary to sustain community?

The typical New England town has a town hall, a school, a church, a post office, a general store or two, a country inn, and possibly a country fair or a summer festival. More often than not, the school, the church, and the traditional town meeting provide the spiritual glue, which holds the community together. Where is the spiritual glue, which binds a workplace community? Is it money, job security, the workplace environment, personal relationships, or the work itself?

Jerry Greenfield, cofounder of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc., created a new employee committee known as the Joy Gang reflecting Greenfield’s philosophy: “If it’s not fun, why do it?” The Joy Gang meets periodically to come up with innovative ways to instill more joy into the workplace at Ben & Jerry’s. The Joy Gang has been responsible for introducing a stereo system to provide rock music for production workers, a company song, costume contests, frequent employee celebrations, lunch-hour cookouts, and periodic visits of a masseuse to provide free massages.

3. Boundaries. In every community there is an ongoing tension between the group’s need for exclusivity on the one hand and the desire for inclusiveness on the other hand. Just as a village with no entry restrictions soon becomes a town and a town without real estate zoning laws evolves into a sprawling metropolis, so too may a small business evolve into a large company and eventually become an unmanageable behemoth such as General Motors or IBM — neither of which is likely to be viewed as a community. A workplace without boundaries will not remain a community very long.

At Rhino Foods, Ted Castle feels that team membership should not be cost-free — easy come, easy go. Associated with participation on a team should be responsibility sharing and well-defined performance expectations. Teams, too, require limits and boundaries.

Kirkpatrick Sale, in his book Human Scale, has compiled considerable evidence to suggest that sheer size alone is a very important determinant of the long-term viability of a human community. Sale believes there is a size limit beyond which a community should not be allowed to grow if it is to survive. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a workplace community consisting of more than a few hundred employees. Obviously, it is much easier to control the growth of a privately owned business rather than that of a large publicly held enterprise.

Exclusivity is particularly important during the early stages of development of a community to assure commitment to shared vision, values, and objectives. Rapid organizational growth is incompatible with a stable, enduring workplace community. Mature communities often impose boundaries to limit community growth while simultaneously helping nonmembers organize similar communities.

One of the reasons the state of Vermont, with its 250 or so small towns, works so well is that it is tiny — not unlike Austria, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. With only 58,000 inhabitants, most of whom live either in the countryside or in small towns, Vermont is ranked 49th among the 50 states in population — one fiftieth the size of California.

Some organizations create artificial barriers to community based on race, religion, or national origin. Others use titles and labels to separate the management class from the working class: manager/employee, nonunion/union, exempt/nonexempt, and salaried/hourly. Boundaries of this type are hardly conducive to community building.

Whether or not a workplace community survives may depend on how it balances its mutually contradictory dual needs for exclusivity and inclusiveness. One without the other will surely result in failure.

4. Empowerment. Perhaps the most troublesome attribute of a workplace community is empowerment — the right of each employee to share equally the ability to influence and shape the direction of the organization. Every community member is a leader.

Unfortunately, many corporate managers are into having — owning, manipulating, and controlling money, power, people, and things. In response to their insatiable psychological need to be in control, those who are into having often exhibit behavioral patterns, which are aggressive, competitive, and antagonistic. To have someone is to take charge of that person — to control him or her. Those in the having mode are afraid of losing what they have to someone else.

Power sharing may be very threatening to corporate managers, union leaders, and leaders of organizations aspiring to become workplace communities. For an organization to have the possibility of becoming a true community, its leaders must be prepared to risk the total loss of control. This is a higher price than most corporate executives are prepared to pay. This also gets to the crux of why there are precious few workplace communities. As former Soviet Union leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev learned the hard way, power sharing is very risky business.

When its principal business, chocolate chip cookie dough, took an unexpected dip in 1993, Ted Castle turned to the employees at Rhino Foods with the question, “Which do you prefer — layoffs, reduced hours and reduced pay, or temporary job sharing with another firm?” They opted for job sharing. The approach of Rhino’s management was that this was the employees’ issue and that they should play a major role in deciding what should be done in response to the temporary crisis.

Some company CEOs naively believe that community can be mandated by executive fiat. Community cannot be ordered from above. Top-down community-building initiatives are perceived by employees as deceptive attempts by management to manipulate them. The primary reason that Soviet-style communism failed was that it tried unsuccessfully to impose community on the Soviet people against their will. That affirmative action has met such strong resistance in the United States is hardly surprising as it represents an overt attempt by the U.S. government to impose community in the workplace.

Workplace communities must also be grounded on a foundation of equality and justice. We are not suggesting that all community members must think and act alike. Honest differences of opinion can energize the community and provide a source of creative tension. Members need not have the same level of income or wealth either. But there cannot be huge disparities among members with regard to the fundamental criteria on which the community is based whether they be economic, professional, craftsmanship, artistic talent, or technical proficiency. A workplace community will not flourish if it is dominated by a handful of people possessing a disproportionate amount of power and influence.

For those who choose to avail themselves of the opportunity, New England town meetings are a form of community power sharing. Unfortunately, attendance at Vermont town meetings has been on the wane in recent years, thus providing increased power to a disproportionate few.

5. Responsibility sharing. The flip side of power sharing in the workplace is responsibility sharing. Community members should be prepared to share the responsibility and accountability for achieving the community’s goals and objectives. Responsibility sharing implies a very strong commitment to workplace cooperation, participation, and team building. The group takes on more importance than the individual manager or employee in workplace communities.

The very essence of our free enterprise capitalistic system involves promoting the virtues of individualism — often subordinating the interests of the community to those of the individual. The Japanese, on the other hand, take a quite different view of the relationship between the individual and the community. In Japanese companies, for example, the interests of the CEO are subordinated to those of the employees and the customers. The well-being of the group or the community always takes precedence over individual self-interest.

Several years ago, after the crash of a Nippon Air Lines Boeing 747, which killed several hundred passengers, the CEO of Nippon took personal responsibility for the crash, apologized to the families of those who had been killed, and resigned. One could not even conceive of the possibility of such an act of contrition on the part of the president of an American airline under similar circumstances. In a typical airline crash in America, the airline, the aircraft manufacturer, the pilots, and the FAA each point the finger of blame at someone other than themselves.

Rhino Foods has an employees’ “wants program.” Employee’s help each other get what each wants through responsibility sharing. Both the employees and the company benefit from the results.

6. Growth and development. The primary purpose of a company — its meaning — is to serve as an arena or vehicle for the personal and human development of those who are working in the company. The production of goods and services and the profit which results from the work are byproducts of the process, not ends unto themselves. Because none of us live by bread alone, a viable workplace community must embrace strategies for spiritual, intellectual, and emotional growth and development as well as physiological well-being.

Alienation and distrust are obviously major obstacles to community in the workplace. Competing interests among members can also lead to a breakdown of community. If the real agenda of members is increased personal power and prosperity rather than the well-being of the community, the group will not remain a community for very long. Sustaining the interest and commitment of members, when they are constantly bombarded by external stimuli provided by politicians, the media, peers, and the like, is a formidable challenge to any community.

Excessive psychological dependency on the group leader or guru can also precipitate the premature death of a community. To launch a workplace community often requires a charismatic leader. When members become so attached to the leader that they cannot let go — community degenerates into cult of personality.

7. Tension reduction. Two other interrelated features of communities are adaptability and conflict resolution. An enduring workplace community might be able to adapt to a rapidly changing economic, social, and political environment. Individual community members must be consulted before any significant changes are made in business policies or strategies. However, when policy changes do occur, they often benefit from consultation with the entire group rather than being based on the shoot-from-the-hip macho opinion of an isolated, traditional autocratic leader. Community decision-making is deliberate and time consuming but it allows members to process critical factors affecting the business in a carefully thought-out manner.

Just as communities must adapt to environmental changes, so too must they resolve their own internal conflicts, as well as with those outside the community. Each workplace community needs some sort of conflict resolution mechanism to reduce tension when internal disputes arise among individual community members as well as when disputes occur with those outside of the workplace — customers, investors, suppliers, competitors, and government.

In all too many American companies, management has consistently taken an adversarial stance against competitors, government, and employees — particularly employees belonging to a labor union. And labor leaders have engaged in similar behavior themselves. There is no place for this type of destructive thinking in a workplace community. A zero-sum mindset soon gives way to a “win-win” approach to problem solving and conflict resolution.

8. Education. Notwithstanding the many virtues of community, life in a workplace community is not without blemishes. Although a small factory or a workplace may be homogeneous and close-knit, it may also be parochial, conservative, resistant to change, and suspicious of outsiders. There is often a low tolerance for nonconformity and opinions, which differ from the community norm. Invasion of privacy and nosiness are not uncommon in workplace communities. Rarely are envy, greed, and competitiveness absent from such groups.

Even though one may work in a community, one may still find oneself detached and estranged from other community members. Such experiences may evoke feelings of “If community life is so great, then why do I feel so bad?”

For all of these reasons, it behooves the community to have an effective education and training program to teach members community values, decision-making, governance, responsibility, growth and development, power sharing, and tension reduction.

9. Feedback. Finally, a viable workplace community needs some type of adaptive feedback control system, which monitors community performance against objectives and adjusts community strategies accordingly. Community building is very tough business. It requires constant feedback and evaluation. It should come as no surprise that power sharing, responsibility sharing, team building, and participatory management must be continuously sold and resold. In most firms neither labor nor management is accustomed to this type of thinking. Both require considerable training, coaching, and monitoring.

Any business or organization contemplating the creation of a workplace community should be fully aware of the endless perils of workplace democracy. Participatory management is a much more difficult form of management than authoritarian management. If management can get by with it, ordering someone to do something is much easier than trying to have a group of employees reach a consensus on a particular action. The only problem is that well-educated, affluent employees resent being told what to do by anyone. Therein lies the rub.

To add insult to injury, some employees react negatively to their newfound options in the workplace. They simply do not want the additional responsibility. They would rather be told what to do than to get involved in the decision-making process.

10. Friendship. Spiritual guru Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul and Soul Mates, has some cogent advice for those seeking meaningful work. Moore suggests asking a prospective employer, “How easy is it to make friends in your company?”.

Community is about personal relationships. The workplace should foster friendship among employees, among managers, and between managers and employees. Rhino Foods’ relationship with its employees is “founded upon a climate of mutual trust and respect within an environment for listening and personal expression.” It claims that it is a vehicle for its people to become friends and get what they want. Without friendship there can be little joy and little meaning in the workplace.

Under the most ideal circumstances, community building in the workplace is a slow and tedious process. The risk of failure is substantial. But the possible benefits include improved morale, reduced absenteeism, increased productivity, and more meaningful lives for all concerned.

Added material –

Duke University professors Thomas H. Naylor and William H. Willimon and Swedish businessman Rolf Österberg are coauthors of The Search for Meaning in the Workplace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).

BENEFITS OF COMMUNITY “Those few American corporations that manage to convey a genuine sense of community and belonging to their employees are thriving as a consequence.” Thomas J. Peters.

A SENSE OF CONNECTION “We are not meant to stand alone. We need to belong — to something or someone. Only where there is mutual commitment will you find people prepared to deny themselves for the good of others?

“Loneliness may be the real disease of the next century, as we live alone, work alone, and play alone, insulated by our modem, our Walkman, or our television.

“It is no longer clear where we connect or to where we belong. If, however, we belong to nothing, the point of striving is hard to see.” Charles Handy, The Age of Paradox.

WATCHING OTHERS WORK “We have intentionally structured our organization so as to exclude lower levels of an organization, those doing the core work, from planning, organizing, and controlling their own work. We admonish managers to put down their calculators, take off their lab coats, put on a tie, and get to the business of watching others work.” Peter Block Stewardship

REALITY TEST “It’s a whole lot easier to be concerned about employees’ growth and development when you are profitable than when you are not.” Ted Castle Rhino Foods

WOMEN ARE STILL ONLY A SMALL PRESENCE IN THE CORPORATE SUITE According to a report by Catalyst, a New York City-based research firm concerned with women in the workplace, women hold only 57, or 2.4 percent, of the more than 2,400 highest-ranking corporate executive positions in the United States. Women have made far greater strides in middle management posts. The Catalyst reports that of the more than 13,000 corporate officer posts at Fortune 500 firms, 10 percent are held by women.