This article brings together the engaged community practices, research around positive leadership, and draws parallels useful for values-based leading in today’s organizations. It emphasizes how leaders can employ the means of positivity in engendering a more productive work environment, and how they can do it beyond the usual focus on financial rewards. It concludes with a summary of recommendations for understanding and practicing communal leadership at work.
Making it personal: The power of positive community
Have you ever thought about how good you feel when you get off work and see your loved ones or friends in a casual setting? How your guard comes down and your smile widens in the presence of those you trust at a local club, church, or alumni association? Or when the neighbors you like knock on the door, offering for you to join them for dinner or to recommend a good doctor when your family member has fallen ill? You probably then feel that you are part of a group of people who understand your needs and strengths, care about you, and are willing to shoulder your burdens, as you are willing to join in shouldering theirs. These attributes are some of the structural components of a community to which you feel you belong.
It is hard for most of us to significantly switch psychological “gears” when we go to work and face an environment (e.g., organizational culture) different from the one above. Is there a way to have that same positive sense of community at work, even though its attributes might appear differently in a professional context? “A community is a positive one when its members actively participate in a network of supportive relationships.” As social beings, people gravitate toward—and wish to have a voice in—communal settings, be it to showcase their work talents among appreciative peers, negotiate amends with those they hurt, or feel psychologically safe when revealing difficult truths.
As a manager trying to improve operational efficiency at a supermarket, for example, it should matter to you whether your employees are happy to work together to increase customer throughput, reduce the lines at the cash registers, and in the process improve efficiency and customer satisfaction. As a CEO of a defense contractor, it most likely matters to you if your engineers feel safe to reveal mistakes in mission-critical programming without fear of being singled out for reprimand. As a leader of a caregiving team at a hospital, it must matter to you that any negotiations around the plan of care are settled and no deep grudges are held prior to a complicated, 12-hour surgery in which each teammate’s expertise, full dedication, and mental stamina are paramount to the successful outcome. The sense of community belonging may take the edge off of difficult situations, reposition the focus from self to the group, and make clearer the vision of a larger purpose or organizational mission.
After decades of consulting and prolific business writing, Peter Block identified community leadership as “convening” (e.g., designing a context) and that this type of leadership “begins with understanding that every gathering is an opportunity to deepen accountability and commitment through engagement.” He also clarified that engagement is about ways of changing towards “caring for the well-being of the whole” (e.g., organization) and that “it doesn’t matter what the stated purpose of the gathering is.” Most managers would ask, “How could that be? Shouldn’t I drive the meeting agenda to achieve specific results?” For many tactical meetings of an already engaged workplace community, the answer could certainly be yes.
However, in today’s environment, business gatherings often have the overarching goals of breaking from the status quo of plateaued performance, harnessing the employees’ connective powers, and increasing thoughtful output for the company’s survival and a sustainable future. In such important instances, the agenda has to be about the people in the meeting, the meeting has to be about the ways of motivated coalescing around the task, and the results have to emerge as deeply shared rules and goals for engagement to accomplish that task. A genuinely productive attitude may then ensue and an optimal outcome materialize.
The strength of sustained quality connections
The approach of relying on powers of convening and engagement also finds support in recent thinking about managing sustainable organizational change. What leaders normally desire when trying to make productivity leaps at their companies is the change that lasts—change in practices, change in attitudes, and change in levels of commitment. Mallinger, Goodwin, and O’Hara reminded us about facilitating organizational culture shifts through structural components (e.g., teamwork, collaboration) in plans for successful change. McGinn illustrated how the shared history, interconnected relational structure, and work practices—as descriptors of a culture in a positive work community—helped to weather significant changes in that community’s environments. The culture of a work community that is most welcoming to positive change can be cultivated through frequent, high-quality interactions among organizational members.
Such sustained communal interactions are what may distinguish a focus on building a positive community from an earlier focus on individual, albeit positive, influences of a leader. The power of positive organizational scholarship (POS) and practice stemming from positive psychology has already been highlighted and is worth reiterating, as it pertains to what each manager can do individually at work. Positive individual treatment, for instance, continues to be reported as associated with lower stress levels and reduced intentions of employees to leave their organizations. However, a greater and deliberate leap in organizational performance may occur when leadership practices toward a positive work community are commonplace and become ingrained in the overall organizational culture, regardless of hierarchies, ranks, or individual heroics.,  Henry Mintzberg, one of the most influential management scholars, wrote that it is about “time we began to think of our organizations as communities of cooperation” and that leadership effectiveness “lies not in any individuals so much as in the collective social process—essentially in community.”
Kaiser Permanente Example
The author was fortunate to lead technology change projects at Kaiser Permanente for many years and witnessed first-hand how a sense of community mattered in that large-scale, matrix-management environment. Due to a necessarily complex web of processes and practices in modern healthcare settings, high-quality connections were paramount for getting anything done in a meaningful and effective manner. A seemingly small clinical system-implementation project could have numerous working touch points and draw on expertise from many departments and other project teams to deliver critical functionality on time.
As project teams were pulled together from various clinical, technical, administrative, and clerical personnel, it was important to seek bonding based on common purpose and dive into the trust the team members all needed to have based on an ultimate dedication to patient-care outcomes. It was also important to develop connections in which group members trusted, enabled, and respected each other. With strong personal hang-ups fading and professional idiosyncrasies melting in the face of such communally important goals, the team would begin to share more deeply the sense of responsibility for the project’s success.
If the work groups were languishing or authoritarianism settled in, it was essential to reconnect to the overall organizational mission for the larger community’s benefit and to create a mini-community of empowered professionals that was reenergized enough to move forward in a highly productive fashion. Some group members led the way by proposing ground rules for common meetings, such as that every member had to explain specific reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with the team’s plans or direction, tell a personal story of why the team’s work was important to the organization, or outline how his or her proposals ultimately benefited patient care. When regularly practiced, these mutually adopted high expectations for team participation and input seemed to lead to increased member involvement and team cohesion. This prompted some savvy managers to see the power of open engagement with mutual accountabilities and step into the group processes as participants and positive enablers rather than commanders and sole decision makers external to the teams. The value of the social-communal leadership process was then recognized and cherished as a cultural example for future action.
Building and leading a positive organizational community
Integrating lessons for community belonging from positive community practice and embedding practice-bound considerations from POS and positive leadership studies are a natural first step in developing suggestions for building a positive organizational community. Here are a few recommendations:
- Get off the traditional leadership “horse” and walk into a community!
As Mintzberg suggested, cooperation is key in today’s perception of effective leading. It should not be about the prowess and omnipotent power of advice and wisdom that organizational members must await from an individual leader. It is about the business leaders imagining and enabling conditions for effective organizational cooperation and, even more importantly in perilous business times, equipping others to do the same. Positive organizational communities are not dependent on their leaders to make all key decisions and are not expected to constantly look up to them for guidance in what individual professionals know how to resolve. Respect for mutual value and expertise seems foundational in positive community leadership, and in everyday practice, the leaders should not be presented, perceived, or treated at work as community outsiders. Specifically, today’s business leaders may find that “blending in” as valued organizational community members and facilitating positive change from within that community (i.e., walking into the community and participating) is a more effective approach in fostering workplace cooperation than broadcasting organizational agenda from a leadership “tower.”
- Shed the past and shift conversations from problems to possibilities.
As leaders embrace their work communities and become their authentic members, they need to understand how to engender change inside the community. Block emphasized how important it is to set a stage for conversations without advice or directives, to listen at least as much as talk, and to create a shared imagination of a future free from the past. Positive organizational communities should often gather organically, not hierarchically, in order to reveal the range of possible solutions to real challenges that organizations face. A top leadership team facing an overwhelmed workforce at times of financial austerity or market uncertainty should benefit from encouraging organizational community gatherings where the ground rules would be to (a) avoid dwelling on past mistakes; (b) refrain from immediately dismissing new ideas for change; and (c) focus on items that truly matter for the organization’s future.
- Encourage small gatherings in the right context.
Notably, the ground rules emphasized by the leaders for workplace community gatherings would not include a rigid, content-driven agenda. This is consistent with one of the core premises of such gatherings to uncover the ingenuity or latent wisdom of local teams and departments. Small groups are the building blocks of a community and should be considered incubators for the free-flowing thought and valued input of gifted people. Even if the only result of an employee group’s gathering is its stronger relationships, it is a good result and one that may propel the employees to higher levels of effectiveness in what they routinely do.
In positive organizational settings, developing a community is usually more important than solving a specific problem. A common detriment to positive organizational dynamics is underestimating the value of high-quality connections in small groups—that is when employees respect, trust, and enable each other. A leader’s contribution in such settings might be to set the right context for a gathering—“one of possibility, generosity, and gifts, rather than one of fear, mistakes, and self-interest.” Project managers, for example, should not await edicts from top management to act to alleviate a problem, but rather feel free and motivated to proactively convene their teams or peer groups and formulate how to move forward to a better place from under the circumstances they experience. In order to achieve this level of initiative and engagement within the workforce, however, top leaders should (a) actively show their appreciation for all ideas generated in small-group gatherings; (b) choose, based on merit, and implement some of these ideas that advance business practice; and (c) individually and publicly recognize the value of implemented improvements and positive change from the materialized ideas.
- Sustain positive change by making the culture of community last.
Communal ties and feelings generated through repeated positive leadership practices above may then create a culture expectant of such practices and behaviors. For instance, the sense of community engagement may get stronger as the employee’s voice is positively encouraged and even highly valued; and the new entrants into such thriving work settings may be naturally drawn and socialized into the positive organizational community. In one of the highly successful cases of workplace thriving in the food industry, for example, the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (ZCoB) of Ann Arbor, Michigan, built a reputation for sustained, positive leadership practices. Focusing on possibilities and lasting community values, ZCoB leaders convened many gatherings to draft and refine the company’s “2020 Vision.” It reaffirmed—through a common and engaged commitment—that their organizational community leaders and members continue to (a) tap into each other’s “deepest creative potential”; (b) zero in on “caring and cooperation”; while (c) emphasizing the imperative for being “profitable in order to survive.” The organization works at this every day, looking toward developing a brighter future, together. This valuable and valued approach might also contribute to the societal good through the sustained cultural basis for positive institutional work.
In conclusion, when the going gets tough for business leaders at the times of frugality and global upheavals, leaders can benefit from having already empowered their workplaces to have transformed into safe and positive organizational communities. Grounding in communal values and leadership practices might be the recipe for getting out of stagnant performance loops and making a leap, collectively, into a competitively advantageous thriving business.
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