Leader Volume 9, Number 6
Community at Work Takes a Conscious Commitment
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:
The workplace is
fast becoming fertile ground for dialogue around “softer”
subjects once taboo in the hard, bottom-line world of the
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 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
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.
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.
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.
Here are some
lessons I learned about community from Mossman’s story.
whether real or virtual, lives and flourishes only when people
make a conscious commitment to hold a life and task in common.
Two: Attention must
be paid to morale to keep the community from losing energy.
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.
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.
Five: One needs
to know one’s role and how it fits within the broader context of
Six: One needs to
know that help, not hell, is on the way when things go wrong as
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.
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.