What makes a positive community?
Before answering that question, let’s zoom out a little bit.
Humans are made to live and work with others in a community where we can thrive. We are social beings that have evolved to exist within communities.
The quality of a community is often dictated by the degree of engagement and happiness individuals can draw from community interactions. Yet, sadly, some communities promote feelings of self-doubt and isolation.
Positive communities are groups that inspire their members in ways that promote a sense of self-discovery and group connection, encourage members to express their beliefs and values and build relationships with others.
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What is a Community?
While most of us know intuitively what is meant by the word ‘community,’ the term has been used to refer to a wide range of different phenomena throughout time. For instance, the word is often used to refer to co-location in a neighborhood, social capital (i.e., thinking of others as resources), or social organization at a state or national level (Mah & Carpenter, 2016).
Today, the word can mean all or none of these things.
A synthesis of definitions from sociology suggests that a community is a social unit (or group of living things) that share something in common, such as customs, identifying characteristics, values, beliefs, or norms (Mah & Carpenter, 2016).
To illustrate, it is likely you have heard references to the term ‘LGBTQI+ community.’ This is a loosely defined grouping of individuals, organizations, and social movements who take an interest in the rights and subcultures of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex populations.
In line with the definition of a community, members of the LGBTQI+ community share common identifying characteristics (e.g., gender identity, sexual preference) and values (e.g., the freedom to openly express one’s identity).
Communities are based around networks of social relations that extend beyond one’s immediate family, and they are thought to have some longevity. That is, members of a community stay in regular social contact with one another.
Further, while being physically situated close to other community members is sometimes necessary for that community to thrive, there has been a rise in mobile and virtual communities that are challenging classic understandings of the term.
For instance, the 100 million users that regularly log in to online games like World of Warcraft (MMO Populations, n.d.) are part of a global virtual community. Likewise, online forums and Facebook groups on niche hobbies are other forms of virtual community.
What is a Positive Community?
Communities can have positive, negative, or null consequences for their members and the broader environment in which they are situated.
Positive experiences with communities allow individuals to feel more connected to their environment and the people in it. Further, the connection that comes with being in a community can act as a support system for members when they require encouragement or help.
Indeed, the power of community involvement is well-recognized by scholars and can help combat the sense of isolation that can be felt among social minorities.
For instance, one study of mental health among bisexual women found that participating in a bisexual-specific community 2-3 times per week helped reduce the impact of internalized negative attitudes about one’s bisexuality on depressive symptoms (Lambe, Cerezo, & O’Shaughnessy, 2017).
Similarly, another study showed that rural, low-income mothers who regularly engaged with their faith-based communities exhibited fewer depressive symptoms (Garrison, Marks, Lawrence, & Braun, 2005).
Scientific recognition of the benefits of community involvement for mental health has translated to a range of mental health campaigns across the world. For example, Australia’s long-running Act-Belong-Commit campaign encourages people to be mentally healthy by getting involved with a local community group and committing to a meaningful cause, such as through volunteering (Act-Belong-Commit, n.d.).
At a national level, Iceland embarked on a plan to reduce teenage alcohol and drug consumption by providing more access to community sporting groups.
The results of the campaign were groundbreaking. Following the initiative, the percentage of teenagers who reported excessive alcohol consumption in the previous month dropped from 42% in 1998 to 5% in 2016. Likewise, the percentage who reported ever using cannabis dropped from 17% to 7%, and cigarette use fell from 23% to 3% (Young, 2017).
Based on these results, it is clear that involvement in positive communities can have a tangible impact on individuals by helping them avoid negative outcomes, such as poor mental health, by providing a sense of belonging and directing members’ attention and energy toward beneficial activities.
However, involvement in positive communities can bring about positive change in the broader environment, too.
In his book, Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, leading expert on collaborative decision making, Sam Kaner (2014), describes the process that community groups undergo when trying to bring about change in an environment.
To achieve change, members of a group must navigate what Kaner refers to as the “groan zone.” This is referred to as such because it is uncomfortable and sometimes marked by conflict. However, when parties build trust and communicate a shared vision with those who have the power to enact change, positive outcomes can result.
An example may be a community dedicated to improving sustainability in a particular city. By building a sense of trust, practicing open communication, and conveying a shared vision of what the city may look like with more clean energy, change may be enacted. In this way, positive outcomes extend beyond the group’s confines and its members but can positively affect a broader community.
5 Drivers of Helpful Community Formation
There are two key reasons why communities may form.
- Communities tend to form when one or more individuals want to connect with others possessing similar values, beliefs, interests, etc., and such a group doesn’t currently exist, or
- Inadvertently, as a result of being co-located.
Whether such groups form on purpose or by accident, discovering others with whom we share common characteristics can be incredibly comforting and rewarding. Involvement in positive and encouraging communities can also facilitate self-reflection and exploration of core values and beliefs.
Here are five key grounds upon which communities tend to form (and why others may be motivated to join said communities; Perkins, 2015).
1. Shared identity
It is common for communities to form among those who share a common sense of identity. For instance, alumni group-members share a history at the same learning institution. Likewise, ethnic communities share aspects of their culture and heritage in common.
2. Shared purpose
Those who feel passionately about social causes will often band together as a community. These objectives can be large-scale, such as working together to eradicate a particular disease, or be on a smaller, more local scale, such as a community that seeks to get a particular party member elected.
3. Common objectives
Some communities are united by concrete goals or the pursuit of mutually beneficial outcomes. For instance, millions of Facebook users around the world engage with Facebook’s many buy-and-sell communities.
These communities are formed by everyday Facebook users so that people can buy, sell, and bid on niche categories of items. Thus, these groups’ members share common objectives, such as acquiring new possessions or making a profit on ones that are no longer needed.
4. Shared interests or passions
Many communities form based on common interests or hobbies, such as in Iceland’s example of teen sporting groups. Examples of interests that may lead to community formation include the arts, sports, cooking, cultures, and games.
5. Common Behavior
Communities can serve to hold their members accountable for enacting particular behaviors and reaching certain goals.
When a person commits to achieve a goal, they are typically less likely to succeed when they do so in private. If they start deviating from their objective, there will be no one present to hold them accountable.
Conversely, when a person verbalizes their goals to others within a community, there is a social expectation that they will achieve that goal. Thus that person becomes more likely to succeed (Oppong, 2017).
Further, when someone faces hurdles to achieving a goal, others in their community pursuing similar objectives can provide support and empathize with their situations. Good examples of such communities include Alcoholics Anonymous and weight-loss groups (Perkins, 2015).
10 Traits of Positive Communities
Positive communities may differ in what they encourage, but overall, ten characteristics tend to make for a successful community.
1. Common goals
Effective communities often share similar values and belief systems. These can motivate its individuals to accomplish mutually held goals, the nature of which may vary depending on the group in question.
For example, one community may value environmental goals, such as promoting recycling and making forest areas more habitable for wildlife. In contrast, another community may place value on an effective education system and thereby work toward the goal of influencing education policy.
2. Freedom of expression
Central to developing a positive community is comfort among its members when it comes to speaking their minds and expressing what is important to them.
Individuals who feel encouraged to give input about an issue and who feel heard when they speak their minds are more likely to feel connected to their community. Further, successful communities recognize the importance of opinions that diverge from the majority and are open to hearing these (Greenberg & Edwards, 2009).
In contrast, dysfunctional communities tend to silence voices that diverge from those espoused by the majority or group leaders.
At best, communities with such dynamics may miss opportunities to improve their practices and enhance their members’ fulfillment from their involvement (Bashshur & Oc, 2015). At worst, they may harm their members by isolating them from diverse viewpoints or exerting undue control.
3. Address member concerns with sensitivity
Not only is it important to create a community that encourages the voicing of concerns, but it is also important to ensure that members feel their concerns are adequately addressed.
Positive communities prioritize their members’ wellbeing and address concerns in a timely and sensitive manner when they arise. For community leaders, this means taking the time to listen carefully to any concerns raised and taking the necessary steps to assess risks and conduct further investigations when necessary.
Throughout this process, community leaders need to act fairly, keep clear records, and maintain good communication with the member who initially raised the concern (Whistleblowing Helpline, 2016). Sometimes, it may also be appropriate to protect the member’s identity by referring to the community member anonymously in any documentation.
4. Set clear policies and obligations
Strong and enduring communities typically set clear rules and expectations to guide the conduct of its members. Doing so ensures that there is as little ambiguity as possible regarding what is and is not okay and will help minimize misunderstandings.
Depending on the community’s nature, it may be helpful to establish a code of conduct that explicitly links a community’s mission, values, and principles to expected standards of behavior. Such a code can then help community members to behave ethically, meet their obligations, and carry out day-to-day decision making (Ethics & Compliance Initiative, n.d.).
With policies and expectations clearly in place, enforcement of these rules should be applied fairly.
Feeling a sense of fairness is critical to the experience of good relationships, and good relationships are often a key driver of people’s involvement in communities (Butorova, n.d.). Therefore, a community that does not apply its rules fairly risks inadvertently driving away its members and producing feelings of disconnection.
For instance, the community member who feels that they must ‘pick up the slack’ for another member who has neglected to meet their obligations may begin to feel resentment toward this member. They may also feel resentment toward the community’s leadership, who have failed to hold this member accountable.
6. Celebrate heritage and traditions
Every long-standing community has heritage and traditions that have arisen during the community’s development. Positive communities embrace their culture by reminding members of the long way the community has come.
There are many ways to celebrate a community’s heritage and traditions. One way is through its artifacts–observable symbols and signs of a community’s culture (Ott, 1989).
Examples of artifacts include a community’s stories and legends, such as a dramatic tale of how the community was formed; Wilkins, 1983; language, in the way members greet one another; rituals and ceremonies (Smith & Stewart, 2011), and physical structures or symbols such as trophies or the design of physical spaces.
7. Promote interaction among members
Positive communities work to foster a feeling of genuine connection among members by providing plenty of interaction opportunities. Doing this can motivate members to meet their obligations and work toward the established goals of the community.
More specifically, crafting opportunities for members to experience emotional contagion in their interactions is key.
Emotional contagion occurs when two or more people focus on a common activity and emotional experience, generating feelings of group solidarity (Collins, 2004). Examples of activities that may induce emotional contagion feelings include protesting about a cause a community is passionate about or singing along to songs together at a karaoke night.
8. Elect leaders that stand by community values
Individuals elected to leadership positions within positive communities should be fair and just in their focus. Their shared values should inform the decisions they make on behalf of the community.
Where possible, leaders should be diverse and represent the full scope of views and identities present within the community, such as electing an equal balance of men and women to a board.
9. Prioritize effective communication
Communication is essential for any effective community. Not only does this mean clearly communicating policies, rules, and expectations, but it also means keeping members up to date about ongoing projects, changes to policies, and upcoming events.
Often, communities will set up their own customized channels to facilitate effective communication. Examples of such channels include regular monthly meetings, circulated meeting minutes, digital social networking services, and newsletters.
10. Make smart decisions
Decisions made by positive and encouraging communities focus primarily on the promotion of its vision and aims. When in doubt about decisions that must be made, positive leaders should consider whether any major decision is aligned with the community’s vision and aims. It is the members’ identification with a vision and aims that likely led them to join the community in the first place.
Members will inevitably disagree on some issues, but an effective community leader incorporates concerns from all sides of an issue to arrive at final decisions.
Creating a community and finding purpose – Stephen Thompson
5 Quotes About Positive Communities
People who work together in communities can achieve amazing things. Let these quotes serve as reminders of the drivers and benefits of positive communities.
As you read them, think about whether any resonate with you and the communities you are involved in.
The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.
Coretta Scott King
Every successful individual knows that his or her achievement depends on a community of persons working together.
The power of community to create health is far greater than any physician, clinic or hospital.
Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.
Empathy is the starting point for creating a community and taking action. It is the impetus for creating change.
A Take-Home Message
According to Henrik Ibsen:
“A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.”
Indeed, well-functioning, positive communities can motivate extraordinary commitment and dedication from their members, such that they will be willing to ‘take the helm’ when called upon.
At their core, positive communities generate this commitment because they are founded on a compelling and inspiring vision that members can identify with. Whether this vision is to eradicate world hunger or have the best Christmas lights display in the neighborhood, positive communities get members excited about interacting with one another and contributing.
Positive communities are also governed by effective leaders, who represent and execute the community’s values with fairness and genuine concern for their members.
We covered ten factors that can help make a community successful, but did we miss any? We’d love to hear from you in the comment section below.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.
- Act-Belong-Commit. (n.d.). What is Act Belong Commit? Retrieved from https://www.actbelongcommit.org.au/about-us/what-is-act-belong-commit
- Bashshur, M. R., & Oc, B. (2015). When voice matters: A multilevel review of the impact of voice in organizations. Journal of Management, 41(5), 1530-1554.
- Butorova, H. (n.d.). The importance of: Fairness. Citywise. Retrieved from https://citywise.org/importance-fairness/
- Collins, R. (2004). Interaction ritual chains. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Ethics & Compliance Initiative. (n.d.). Developing an organizational code of conduct. Retrieved from https://www.ethics.org/resources/free-toolkit/code-of-conduct/
- Garrison, M. B., Marks, L. D., Lawrence, F. C., & Braun, B. (2005). Religious beliefs, faith community involvement and depression: A study of rural, low-income mothers. Women & Health, 40(3), 51-62.
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- Lambe, J., Cerezo, A., & O’Shaughnessy, T. (2017). Minority stress, community involvement, and mental health among bisexual women. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 4(2), 218-226.
- Mah, A., & Carpenter, M. (2016). Community. Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology.
- MMO Populations. (n.d.). World of Warcraft. Retrieved from https://mmo-population.com/r/wow
- Ott, J. S. (1989). The organizational culture perspective. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole).
- Perkins, L. (2015). 5 Key reasons people join communities. Social Media Week. Retrieved from https://socialmediaweek.org/blog/2015/01/5-key-reasons-people-join-communities/
- Smith, A. C., & Stewart, B. (2011). Organizational rituals: Features, functions and mechanisms. International Journal of Management Reviews, 13(2), 113-133.
- Whistleblowing Helpline. (2016). Raising concerns at work. Retrieved from https://www.norfolklscb.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Raising-Concerns-at-Work.pdf
- Wilkins, A. L. (1983). Organizational stories as symbols which control the organization. In L. R. Pondy, P. J. Frost, T. C. Dandridge, G. Morgan & S. B. Bacharach. (Eds.). Organizational symbolism. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
- Young, E. (2017, January 19). How Iceland got teens to say no to drugs. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/01/teens-drugs-iceland/513668/