Control is for amateurs: Empower the community to change the culture in your organization

Rachel Happe is co-founder and principal at The Community Roundtable.

Rachel Happe is co-founder and principal at The Community Roundtable.

Telling people what to do is a sure fire way of not making real change. As well as getting them to secretly resent you.

That’s the unmistakable message from 2018 Boye conference keynote speaker Rachel Happe, who is co-founder and principal at US-based The Community Roundtable (TheCR).

TheCR works towards creating more valuable communities for organizations. In short, Rachel has a beef with people telling other people what to do:

We are so used to living with these power structures, and they’ve been set up for so long that leaders don’t know it can be different. I find it incredibly patronizing to tell other people what to do. And yes, it’s so also very ineffective.

However, during our conversation, it quickly became clear that Rachel had more to say. There is simply too much potential being wasted when we don’t understand how to architect our communities.

Paving the way
Today Rachel is working out of her home in Maine following a series of actual gas explosions in her neighborhood. She immediately turns the conversation towards responsibility. And the value that both city officials and community leaders can create by doing it more:

Many communities are inherited, and the person responsible for the community often sees it as something that needs to be preserved. They tend to be reactive, keeping things from “going wrong”. Maybe answering questions, if anyone actually raises any.

In Rachel’s opinion, a lot of people tend to forget that the community is just like any other part of the organization. It requires someone taking responsibility for it, setting a goal for it, and leading it. Not by commands, but by setting an example. But how?  

Architecting a community that fosters ideal behavior
In many communities, it’s the case of an existing structure that fosters a counter-productive behavior. Rachel provides the example of what happened with email:

When email was deployed, we didn’t think of cc and bcc fields, it made us all passive-aggressive because you can copy five people instead of answering someone directly.

The first step in creating value with your community is identifying these structures and changing them. Only then can you move forward and cultivate a different behavior.

Cultivating a new behavior  
People often make the mistake of approaching community management with a “fix it mentality”. But community management isn’t about correcting a certain behavior, it’s about replacing it with a different, positive one. Rachel has so many “real world” parallels for this that it was difficult to choose just one. But we decided to go for kids eating their pees:

A study showed that parents could actually force their kids to eat their peas. However, eating their pees isn’t really what parents are after. What they want is for the kids to go out into the world and eat their vegetables. It’s much better to set an example and foster an environment where eating your peas is as natural as putting on clothes in the morning.  

Hopping back into the community, we do this by identifying positive behavior that is already being demonstrated by the people in it. Then launching a program that nudges everyone towards more of that behavior. The goal is to create an environment where it’s actually okay for people to express that they really don’t feel like eating their pees. Or any other sort of vegetable for that matter. Going out on a limb, it seems like you could say that it’s about giving them some sort of fruit to start things off.

Topics that fosters engagement - and are not about kittens   
We want people to be engaging with content, but we still want that content to be closely work-related. Rachel explains:

There are things that are optimally engaging, and things that are valuable. It would be valuable to get feedback on the organizations 2018 strategy, but you are never going to get that by the executive posting a statement like that in the community. In order to actually get feedback like that, people have to feel secure that their critique won’t be held against them.

You have to cultivate a non-critical culture of sharing before people feel secure enough to address the heavy stuff. The trick is to also promote topics that are safe, engaging, but still work-related. There is a sweet spot when we are wanting people to engage.

An example could be The songs I listen to while I perform the obviously mundane and even somewhat boring tasks ... (that we all know and somewhat accept has to be done).

With this tactic, you are nudging people along the different types of engagements as TheCR has described in their Community Engagement Framework. Starting out by validating people who engage with content, moving on to people sharing themselves, asking questions and towards exploring ambiguous issues; in the end, having conversations where we actually “risk” adding value to the organization as a whole. When adopting this approach, we will in the long haul create a better alternative to telling people what to do:

Instead of telling people what to do, we are creating a new environment where people will gradually adopt new behaviors without even realizing it … really, the entire history of society has proven that this is a much better way of perpetuating change.

Before we experience any more gas explosions
Let’s just add that no one got hurt in the aforementioned gas explosions, but that for the future, it would be ideal to cultivate change before we experience eruptions like that in our communities.

Based on a conversation with Martin Paludan