At gothamCulture, authentic community is one of our five core values. As you may have read on our website, “We connect with each other in authentic ways because we know that together we can do more than any of us could alone. Each of us plays a unique part in fostering a community of involvement and inclusion.”
This sounds nice, but what does it mean? And more importantly, what does it look like in action?
What Values Look Like
Before we dive too deep into authentic community, I think it’s worth taking a step back to look at values more broadly, especially in the context of organizations.
Each of us as individuals has values, many of which we agree on as a society and codify as law. Even when we don’t agree, these conversations help us individually question and explore what’s important to us, how we expect to be treated, and how we want to treat others.
Just as individuals and societies have values, so to do organizations. Google the term “company values,” plus the name of pretty much any company, and you’ll get a results page exposing what the company believes in and the standards they claim to hold themselves accountable to.
But how do you know if they do, in fact, hold themselves accountable to their values?
In the most basic sense, you don’t. Unless you work there, or know someone who does, you likely don’t have much of a window into a company’s values. And in a lot of ways, this makes sense. Just like individuals have a lot of discretion over what they share and with whom, organizations, especially private ones, choose how they share their experience and with whom.
Even so, actions can speak loudly. Think about your favorite restaurant or bar. What do you like about it? The food and drinks are probably fabulous, but it’s likely more than that. Do you have a favorite server or bartender? Do you know the manager or owner? When you walk in, are you greeted with a smile, a handshake, and a “So good to see you!”?
All of these actions add up and keep you coming back, just like the food and drink. You’re clearly valued as a patron, and further still, the people serving you value customer service and take pride in doing their job well. The values embodied by the actions of these employees drive the business. You probably wouldn’t come back if your entrée was served with a side of snark, melancholy, or disinterest.
Values Define Authentic Community
So what do values mean for authentic community? Put simply, they define it and make it possible. Not every authentic community will have the same values, but each of them will have shared values. These shared values don’t have to be explicitly written out; authentic community is often based on implicit agreements among members about what community should include and look like.
We have similar agreements with our friend groups, too. We haven’t written out a list of the ways we agree to act towards and treat each other, but through the course of the relationships, we’ve come to some consensus about what behaviors we appreciate and which we would like to avoid. When we breach these implicit “contracts,” relationships can suffer and ultimately fizzle out or end. We each take responsibility for holding the other accountable to these expectations of behavior.
Contracts Hold Us Accountable
This might seem fluffy or far removed from the modern workplace, but there is a great deal of research related to this concept of relational contracts. Psychological contract theory was developed in large part by Denise Rousseau.
At a high level, a psychological contract encompasses the shared beliefs, perceptions, and informal obligations between two individuals. While most often studied in the context of relationships between an employer or manager and an employee, it also applies to lateral relationships as well, like those between coworkers.
Psychological contracts are breached when one side of the contract perceives that the other has not held up his or her end of the bargain. Such breaches can cause many negative outcomes, such as distrust, disengagement, or withdrawal, and can be isolated to the individual who perceived the breach, or can spread more widely.
When talking about community, this makes sense: just as we stick by our friends when we perceive they’ve been hurt or wronged, so too we stand by our fellow coworkers.
How You Can Help Drive Authentic Community
This brings us back to what authentic community looks like, and specifically how you can get involved in creating and maintaining that community.
- Be clear about expectations. So far, I’ve talked a lot about implicit understanding. We can communicate a lot through how we act, but often, directly explaining what we’re looking for or hope to achieve can save us and others a lot of time and agony. Having a clear, concise discussion to get on the same page can go a long way to building and maintaining a healthy relationship, be it with a superior, a peer, or a report.
- Speak up when needed. Don’t assume others know when you feel like you’re being mistreated or taken advantage of. When we enter into relationships, we often have different assumptions or frames of reference (call heuristics) about what those relationships can and should look like. If you feel like someone isn’t holding up his/her end of the bargain, or is asking too much of you, let them know instead of suffering in silence.
- Make it happen! Work is often serious business, with tight deadlines, limited budgets, and high expectations. This can leave us on edge and without a lot of time to step back and smell the roses, or get to know our cubicle neighbor. Make time to to have a coffee or get lunch. Establishing a dialogue will help you work out expectations and get on the same page.
Community can seem like a big, nebulous concept, especially in a work environment where we might feel relatively powerless. But, by authentically displaying our own defined values, caring for our workmates, and communication, we can have a huge impact on the community where we spend most of our waking hours. Where can you begin today?
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