What is the key to happiness? This is a question that people have been asking for thousands of years. But this question need not be an esoteric and philosophical one. Studies at Harvard University, the London School of Economics, and other research have consistently identified the root of happiness: having rich social bonds and meaningful relationships. Being a part of strong communities is a powerful way for people to build those relationships in a faster, more scalable way. Membership in a community comes with an immediate level of social connection that can be developed further over time and can help people to expedite the formation of meaningful relationships.
As a community manager at the World Economic Forum, I have worked with communities of young and socially-oriented leaders across East Asia, the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. In spite of cultural differences, the value of having strong communities is universal. Stronger communities enable emotional support, access to the resources and networks of other community members, exchange of knowledge and skills that leads to personal and professional development, friendships that add joy to life, and the potential to collaborate with others to generate greater impact in the world.
I’ve thought a lot about how managers and leaders of communities can build and create stronger ones, and I’ve identified several key approaches to achieving this:
1. Have buy-in on common values and shared purpose: Good communities share a common purpose. Whether it is something serious, like tackling a global issue, or something lighter, like exercising to get into better shape, strong communities exist when members have a shared objective or goal that they want to achieve together. In addition, their members share common values. Values need to be articulated and widely understood; they also need to be reinforced and embedded into culture through various means. Values are purpose can be forged through co-creation, through inspiring people to accept them, or through having the right recruitment/selection processes in place to accept new members into a community based on fit with already articulated values and purpose.
2. Create rituals: One technique to embed values and build culture is through shared rituals that help to reinforce them. As a child in the USA, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in school to instill a sense of patriotism and pride in our country. In the Islamic religion, the faithful pray five times a day. Whether rituals take the form of words or actions, they create a practice that all members of the community partake in together, and they reinforce certain messages or ideals that reflect the values or culture of the community as a whole.
3. Use storytelling to reinforce culture: One of the most powerful ways to embed culture in a community is through stories. Through celebrating examples of how other people embody the values, behaviours, and attributes that you are trying to cultivate, it helps convey a more concrete example of how lofty or abstract words manifest themselves through recognizable actions. Stories are also most powerful when community members tell stories about each other, as opposed to about themselves, in order to reinforce the collective nature of the group.
4. Enable connectedness: Good communities are communities where people know large numbers of other people in their group. Connectivity includes an awareness about others, what they are working on, what they are interested in, and what they are good at. Communities with higher levels of connectivity are better positioned for members to provide mutual value to each other and to yield more collaboration for a variety of different purposes.
5. Facilitate the building of trust: It’s not enough for community members to know each other. They also have to trust each other. Without trust, the awareness of opportunities for collaboration and mutual support will never be acted upon.
6. Maximize interactions: In addition to trust and connectivity, the frequency of interactions between members of a community is also crucial. More frequent contact allows for a higher probability that community members will discover ways to add value to each other. Community managers have a variety of tools to design more impactful interactions, geared towards desired outcomes, particularly through the use of big data. Interactions can also be enabled through a variety of different platforms, including different types and levels of in-person and digital engagement.
7. Instill identity through branding: Brands give people a common symbol or name which binds them together and becomes a vessel for a common identity. Brands can take the form of symbols, like national flags or corporate logos. Brands can also take the form of names, like the names of military units or alma maters. Brands can also be manifested through song and music. National struggles like the US Civil Rights Movement or the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa had songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “Nkosi Sikeleli Africa” that became emblematic of a broader community of freedom fighters and activists and helped to inspire them towards a common purpose in the same way that armies rally their troops with their national flags.
8. Create and encourage shared experiences: Shared experiences are a powerful way to build bonds between very different people. Often, the most challenging or difficult experiences to get through are the most powerful at binding people together. Think of a sports team winning a difficult match or a support group for recovering addicts. There is an element of overcoming something with other people that expedites the development of camaraderie and trust. However, shared experiences need not be only about overcoming something. Research shows that human beings seek out similarities with other human beings in order to forge relationships. Experiences as simple as having watched the same movie together or having lived in the same country provide a way for people to acknowledge a commonality and start further conversations.
In summary, community building can seem to be a soft and abstract concept, but at its core, leaders have a variety of practical tools and techniques open to them to build and strengthen the communities they manage. Whether they are comprised of employees in an office, citizens of a town, athletes on a sports team, or members of a social club, building strong communities is the foundation for successful execution towards any community’s objectives. When people have deep and meaningful relationships with other people in their communities, it enhances their emotional state and overall happiness, and in so doing, puts them in a better condition to collaborate with and support fellow community members to achieve more than any one of them could achieve alone.