#473  from Innovative Leader Volume 9, Number 6          June 2000

A Community at Work Takes a Conscious Commitment
by Daniel S. Hanson

Dan Hanson is President of the Fluid Dairy Division of Land O’ Lakes, Inc., a part-time instructor at Augsburg College and Hamline University and the author of A Place to Shine: Emerging from the Shadows at Work and Cultivating Common Ground: Releasing the Power of Relationships at Work (Butterworth Heinemann, Boston, 1996, 1997).  The latter book contains the story of the harvest referenced in this article. Email:  suedanshine@aol.com.

The workplace is fast becoming fertile ground for dialogue around “softer” subjects once taboo in the hard, bottom-line world of the organization.  Words like meaning, relationships, love, and even spirituality, though hard to define at times, are now considered part of  the organizational vocabulary.  One of the latest soft, but hard-to-define, concepts to break the barrier is community.

Now, to the obvious question: what is community?  More to the point for those of us who work inside the organization, how is community translated to everyday life in the context of the organization?  These are hard questions.  However, these are the very questions we must ask if we wish to avoid turning a healthy movement that promises to release the power of relationships at work into another over-programmed and trivialized fad that loses its meaning in the process.

First of all, I am pleased to see that the dialogue about community has permeated the halls of the organization and entered the workplace.  Indeed, the workplace is the very place where dialogue about community needs to occur.  Because, in the final analysis, community is about work.  Not long ago I read a story that brought this simple truth home and, at the same time, put community into focus for me.

The Threshing Crew

The story I am referring to was about a threshing crew in the 1940s written by James Frank Mossman.  The story reminded me of my own childhood experience driving a tractor that pulled the bundle wagon while my father dismantled the shocks of oats, one bundle at a time, and gracefully threw the bundles into my wagon so that they formed a perfect load.  Driving a tractor for three days during the harvest with the threshing crew made me feel like I was part of a community with a life and a task in common.

In many ways, the threshing crews of the early part of this century were a form of, what are now referred to in a fancier term as, virtual communities.  They formed and re-formed throughout the harvest season as the crew traveled from farm to farm taking on new members at each stop, much like the cross-functional teams in the organizations of today that assemble quickly around a task and change members as the task changes.  The virtual communities of today are likely loading computers instead of bundle wagons, but the group dynamics that hold them together are much the same as they were in the threshing crews of the 1940s.  Furthermore, as Mossman’s story reminded me, these virtual communities at work can be rewarding experiences where people learn and grow; or they can be miserable experiences that stifle creativity and kill the human spirit.  The best way to describe what I mean by this statement is to tell more of the story.

A ten-year-old boy is given his own wagon and a team of horses to haul the bundles of grain to the big threshing machine, just like the older members of the crew.  Normally, such a young boy would be given an easier chore such as delivering coffee to the crew, but it is wartime and labor is in short supply. Although he is determined to show that he can do it, at first the task seems insurmountable.  Finally, with the help of a caring and compassionate mentor, he is able to harness the team and master the task.  As a result, the boy feels a part of the work community and shares in the joy of the harvest.  He is sorry to see the harvest end, but looks forward to next year.  Unfortunately, the next year the boy discovers the shadow side of community at work.  His hopes for another year of being part of a caring community are quickly dampened when he learns that his mentor died.  Things go from bad to worse when the weather turns sour, and with it the temperament of the crew.  Eventually, the crew turns upon itself and the boy is told to go home “where sissies belong.”  Shattered by the cruel treatment, the boy vows never to thresh oats again.

Reading the story and reflecting on my own experiences, both as a child on a threshing crew and later as a member of several work groups inside an organization, I was reminded of some simple truths about community.  First of all, community forms around a shared reason for being together that must ultimately translate into a group task with a meaningful role for each individual.  Thus, community is really about groups of people working together.  In the context of the organization, work groups form and interact with other work groups which contribute to achieve a common task for the organization as a whole unit.  But in reality, the organization is a group of work groups, a place where work communities form around a life and a common task.

In the organizations of the 90s these work communities are called teams.  Like the communities that formed around the harvests of the 40s, these teams can become caring communities that nurture learning and growth for the group and the individual, thus producing quality products and services.  Or they can become groups of demoralized people who turn upon themselves and each other, thus stifle growth and productivity by killing the human spirit.  How do we keep this from happening?  Or to twist this around to a more positive angle, how do we build caring communities at work that bring out the human spirit and blend the energy of  the individual into  the community as a whole?  Perhaps we can learn from sharing stories. 

Lessons

Here are some lessons I learned about community from Mossman’s story.

Lesson One:  Community, whether real or virtual, lives and flourishes only when people make a conscious commitment to hold a life and task in common.

Lesson Two:  Attention must be paid to morale to keep the community from losing energy.

Lesson Three:   Mentors must help the young, the apprentice and those open to learning.  Without this, the community ceases to be a learning community, and thus, an innovative and productive unit.

Lesson Four:  It’s not enough to “talk the talk” of caring and community.  One must “walk the talk” as well, or the community will turn upon itself and destroy relationships.

Lesson Five:  One needs to know one’s role and how it fits within the broader context of the task.

Lesson Six:  One needs to know that help, not hell, is on the way when things go wrong as they will.

Lesson Seven:   Among the young, and the young at heart and mind, learning becomes as important as production; for then, networking and cooperation can rise and innovation blossom.

These simple lessons about community are not new.  But that does not decrease their relevance or their value.  Nor does it mean that just because we hear these lessons we put them to practice in our everyday lives at work.  In truth, the more profound lessons in life are heard, but seldom practiced.  And maybe, just maybe, if we hear them often enough we will start to put them into practice. And in the process, build community at work in the true spirit of caring for our work and each other, which is what community is all about.

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