The door was open and I received a comforting welcome when I arrived at the potential client that morning. Whilst waiting for my presentation to the executive leadership and sipping on a needed cup of rather good coffee, I was surprised to sense the warmth of relationship that seemed to exist in this company. The production floor was visible from my perch in reception and employees were hard at work in their production processes, but the environment was characterised by banter, smiles and friendliness. Some supervisors were discussing improvements with their people – ideas apparently generated by staff. Others were standing alongside operators, together monitoring the performance of the machines. There seemed to be pride in the process, with everyone contributing as best as they could. Just before the presentation was due to commence, I noticed the human resources manager and managing director excuse themselves from conversations with employees and leave the floor to attend the meeting. After introductions, I asked: “What’s different here”? The quality manager answered simply: “We care and we demonstrate that we do”.

Not many companies seem to share in this “sense of community”, but languish in disempowered environments – lack of vision, ineffectual leadership and poor relationships. Departmental silos, ineffective communication and “control by rules” drive politicised contexts, with unhappy employees and shoddy work as a result. Tasks lose their meaning and employee presence relates only to receiving a salary at the end of the month. The environment has become toxic.

A “sense of community” was probably first named in 1974 in the studies of Seymour Sarason – his initial understanding sprang from popular expressions about community changing or disappearing, leaving a lack of feelings of belonging. He summed up a sense of community as “the sense that one was the part of a readily available, mutually supportive network of relationships upon which one could depend and as a result of which one did not experience sustained feelings of loneliness”. In the 1980’s, McMillan and Chavis outlined four factors that work together to form a sense of community, with keywords and phrases with each factor:

  1. Membership – a sense of belonging, personal relatedness, investment of the self, feeling the right to belong, being a part of the community, boundaries including identifying people who belong and people who don’t belong, emotional safety (through belonging), feelings of acceptance, willingness to sacrifice for the group, identification with the group, sharing common symbols and personal investment.
  2. Influence – mattering, individual members making a difference to the group and the group having an influence on its members, conformity, members having a say in what happens in the group, consensual validation, closeness.
  3. Integration & Fulfilment of Needs – feeling that members’ needs will be met by resources of the group and through membership, reinforcement, rewarding to members, status of membership, group success, group and individual competence, “person-environment fit,” serve individual’s needs by belonging, shared values, members are able and willing to help one another and receive help in return.
  4. Shared Emotional Connection – the commitment and belief that the community has (and will continue to share) a history, common places, shared events, time together and similar experiences, positive experiences among group members, relationships and bonds between members, completed tasks, shared importance of events/tasks, investment (time, money, intimacy), emotional risk between members, (honours, rewards and humiliation by the community have an impact on members), spiritual bonds.

The kinds of experiences that leaders ‘manufacture’ for the employees in the workplace are critically important for the overall well-being of the organisation. Perhaps leadership focus needs to be given to the following actions to generate a meaningful sense of community:

  1. Align employee roles to purpose and values – shared vision based on common values needs to be related to the fulfilment of each role in the business. Cascading vision and values to all levels needs tangible demonstration in leadership behaviour for it to be adopted by all employees.
  2. Create a participative environment – be inclusive, as all employees need to feel like valued members of the community. The ability to contribute gives people meaningful opportunities to express themselves.
  3. Develop trust relationships – leadership integrity, evenness in dealing with employees and fairness are critical elements in growing an environment of trust within the organisation. Leadership behaviour sets the tone for the culture.
  4. Embrace diversity – ‘human uniqueness’ provides huge opportunities at work for employee contribution. Individual differences should be acknowledged and strengths utilised.
  5. Celebrate successes – recognition for a job well done. Consistently acknowledge and reward innovation, effort and teamwork.
  6. Be present – physical and emotional presence is necessary to establish camaraderie and connectedness. Leaders need to demonstrate care and this is best done whilst on the shop floor.

Cultivating a sense of community at work requires leadership focus. Genuine care seems to underpin a meaningful leadership approach – care for employees, care for clients/customers, care for health and safety, care for quality and care for the brand. If genuine care is demonstrated, a sense of community develops around the things that matter most for the company.