Once upon a time, community was defined by where you lived, worshipped and worked. Then over the years, as social scientist Robert Putman documented in his seminal book, Bowling Alone, the sense of community eroded. The bonds of work slowly eroded, too. People found themselves isolated and lonely.
In 2014 Christine Porath and Tony Schwartz conducted a research study into work-life issues published in the Harvard Business Review. Their findings showed that two-thirds of employees feel no sense of community at work.
The loss of community has stuck with Porath and she explores how we can rebuild it newest book, Mastering Community: The Surprising Ways That Coming Together Moves Us from Surviving to Thriving.
Porath, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, sees firsthand how the need for community has grown. She notes that when she first began teaching a couple of decades ago, the need for civility (a topic of her earlier book) was not a priority. However, she told me in an interview that some students feared that exerting civility would make them appear less leader-like, that is soft and not tough enough to lead in business.
Enter vulnerability, partly a result of the pandemic, has challenged us to look more deeply into how we relate to one another, especially to our leaders. And with a heightened awareness of connection, the need for community grows.
There is a business equation to fostering a stronger sense of community. When people feel connected to their workplace, there is less turnover. That fact alone could make management sit up and take notice of people’s need to be connected. In her book, Porath tells the story of a woman who ran a call center at Dell. This manager noted that people were gaining weight, so she took it upon herself to provide exercise for her employees, including hiring a personal trainer who would conduct exercise sessions at lunchtime.
What the manager did, Porath says, “drove a sense of not only connect people lost a lot of weight. They were far healthier performance went up like 25%.” Porath stresses that this manager was not a senior executive; she acted on her own to foster better conditions for employees.
Intrinsically at work, the need for community is powerful. Leaders nurture this connection by showing respect for employees, valuing them as contributors, and being candid with them about their performance. Bottomline says Porath, “You are making people feel like they belong. I think that that’s crucial. I think the idea of making people feel valued. One of the things that always surprises me, particularly when I get into research, is that people don’t receive thanks.” Showing gratitude says Porath is free and “can be done easily.”
With a sense of community, “people feel this greater sense of thriving. They tend to perform better objectively as rated by bosses. They’re far healthier. They have much less burnout. I think that there are a lot of potential outcomes [for the community] that speak to a much happier, more productive workforce. That’s much more likely to stay” with their employer.
What community enables
Work takes up a considerable amount of time. Rather than viewing it as something I go to, research by Porath and others shows that it can be something I “belong to.” The sense of belonging heightens our ability to cooperate with others and collaborate in ways that enable individuals and teams more than they had expected. Community nurtures the bonds that bind us in ways that employees find more fulfilling and employers can find more rewarding.
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