When we were building and running Sorbet, our greatest focus, challenge and ultimately success came from the community we were able to build and maintain.

Building a community is possibly the most challenging leadership process I’ve experienced in my working life – but also the most rewarding.

The lessons I have learnt and the successes we have enjoyed – as a business, a community and that we have shared with our employees and customers – have shaped the Cultureneering philosophy that Hatch’s coaching is built on. But nothing is created in isolation.

As in all things in business, while I was building Sorbet, I had a belief system and philosophy that supported our need to forge a strong community, but needed a framework that would help us achieve it.

This is one of the biggest lessons I can share: as a business owner or leadership team, never stop learning, reading and networking. The amount of insights I have gained from fellow entrepreneurs and books are tremendous, and have all played a big role in what I understand about business today and in what I’ve achieved in building my companies.

Community building is an excellent example of this in action. Reading Psychiatrist M Scott Peck’s books, The Road Less Travelled and The Different Drum, gave me the framework and base model that I was looking for.

Peck offers a clear four-phase process to community building:

  1. The Psuedo-community
  2. Glorious chaos
  3. Letting go
  4. The Rainbow community (our goal)

Here’s what the phases look like in action.

Phase one: The Pseudo-community

Something I noticed in my early days as an entrepreneur (particularly as a consultant working with big corporates) is that people are inclined to keep quiet in group meetings. More often than not they are reluctant to share their views, especially in the presence of their boss.

The realization dawned that these are not communities at all. They’re fake or ‘psuedo-communities’, they look like communities, but they’re actually just designed to keep peaceful harmony in the business.’

Now, if you’re thinking that peaceful harmony sounds like a good thing, let me ask you this: When was the last time you lived in a complete state of ‘harmony’ in your personal life? Have you never had a disagreement or conflict with your family, parents, siblings or children? Conflicts are normal – they are part of the human condition; they are how we negotiate our lives.

I use the example of family because this is usually where we are most comfortable sharing our opinions, wants and needs. They are places of safety.

Now consider the pseudo-community again, and the carefully constructed ‘peaceful’ harmony. If there is never any conflict, it means no one is ever encouraged to share their views. These are not places of safety. They are also environments where managers and leaders cannot possibly know how their employees really feel – about anything.

The lesson: Harmony in communities should be avoided at all costs – it provides a false sense of peace for leaders who live in blissful ignorance of what is really going on in the workplace.

Fact – there isn’t a single human community on the planet that is devoid of issues. That’s just not how we work. But in pseudo-communities these are skillfully hidden.

Successful avoidance of conflict is not success.

The absence of conflict does not mean everything is going well. Success is the result of serious issues being raised and conflict resolved.

What to do: Create a space of trust and safety in which employees can speak freely. Show willingness to accept criticism and respond constructively to criticism.

Phase two: Glorious chaos

To move out of the pseudo-community, leaders need to be taken out of their comfort zones to a space where paradigms and leadership skills will be tested to the full.

They need to make themselves vulnerable, which for many leaders is a terrifying thought.

This is without a doubt the most difficult step in the community-building process, but was essential in laying the foundation for the Soul of Sorbet, which was the name we gave to our culture at Sorbet.

To move into glorious chaos, follow these steps:

  • Invite citizens to openly and honestly raise issues of concern.
  • Sit back and listen.
  • Make everyone feel safe – be clear that you realise you aren’t perfect and that if there is an issue that you have caused, you’d like to know about it.
  • Then listen carefully – don’t jump in, disagree or defend yourself. Instead, address the issues that were raised.

Here’s the biggest challenge in phase 2: You will most likely be opening a can of worms. Issues will emerge that will shock you. You might long for the peace and harmony you had – but don’t give in and go back there. You can’t put the worms back the can anyway – you can only deal with them. And you have to do so without pointing fingers.

The lesson: Staff problems are almost always directly related to weak leadership – you might not want to hear that, particularly if you are having staff issues, but the sooner you address this, the better off your business will be.

The key is that grievances can be brought up without everyone getting emotional – that’s the place you want to reach as a community. It begins with the leadership team, but ultimately everyone needs to understand and believe that this is true.

What to do: This is not a quick process, but unsettled communities are unhappy, and cannot serve customers well, so you need to push through into a place of safety.

Start by holding constructive sessions where everyone can air their view – sometimes we just need to get things off our chests. You’ll need to take it on the chin, but it will be worth it.

Next, ask employees to pinpoint actual behaviour. Deal with hard facts, not general impressions. General impressions are often tainted by our own perceptions, so hard facts and actual instances are important. If someone can’t give you a straight answer, try to uncover how their perceptions are impacting the situation. 

Finally, listen and develop action plans.

Phase three: Letting go

You need to choose to fight through glorious chaos – it won’t happen by itself. But once you do, you will enter the Letting Go phase, which, if successfully navigated, can lead to some of the most profoundly positive changes in your community.

Until this point I can guarantee you that your community has been contaminated by prejudices, stereotypes, preconceptions and a host of other issues that are holding you all back.

The beautiful thing about community building is that it’s not just about the business and its leadership team – your entire company is on a journey, learning about themselves. Your employees have been made aware of their paradigms and the perceptions that have stunted their abilities to change.

As a leader, your paradigms will have shifted as well. Some of these may have been that leadership is fundamentally power over people, or the conviction that you’re always right and the other person needs to change. But whatever paradigms you’ve held, by this stage they will have started shifting.

What about your reluctance to give up control (always a struggle for entrepreneurs), a lack of empathy, a fear of confrontation, intolerance of different cultures and religions, stereotypes about race groups and genders, dislike of certain cultural behaviours, discomfort in the face of political confrontation, or the belief that you are the only one who can do things properly and if you don’t do things yourself they will never get done? These are all paradigms, and they are all holding us back.

The lesson: When it comes to building a community, refusal to change is a terminal illness. The only way forward is to let go of these paradigms. Open yourself up to change, cleanse yourself of your preconceived ideas and let go of everything that is a barrier to positive change.

One of the most debilitating paradigms is holding a grudge. Are you a victim of your own pride? It’s a futile exercise.

Never place money over the dignity of your employees.

What to do: Learn from each other. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes – try and understand things from their point of view.

This is a self-reflective journey: “What is the paradigm that is currently blocking my way forward? How am I planning to let it go?” Everyone should be asking themselves these questions, from the top of the organization, right through the business.

It’s also not a once-off process. Challenging your next paradigm is a continuous process. But you can’t let go until they are scrutinized.

The next time something upsets you, ask yourself: Why am I so upset? What paradigm from my past is making me feel this way? Did deep. Find the origin of your paradigm if you can – once you have stablished where it comes from, decide how best to let it go and cleanse yourself of its obstructive consequences.

Phase four: The rainbow community

You emerge from the letting go phase when, as a community, you have challenged and altered some of its obstructive paradigms:

  • When the ‘I specialists’ have either left the community or suppressed their rugged individuality
  • When unpopular views are tolerated and accepted
  • When a place of safety has been created
  • When people can speak without fear
  • When conflict is perceived as constructive
  • When the leader has undertaken the journey of self-discovery and shifted the paradigms that were undermining the community
  • Then you’re ready for the transformation to rainbow community.

What does a rainbow community look like? It’s a place where respect, trust and tolerance exists between all diverse members of the organization.

It’s a place where no attempt is made to create sameness, but instead the focus is to create a business that values differences and challenges old paradigms.

There is a quest for learning and knowledge and a common belief in the Higher Purpose.

Service now takes on a whole new meaning – there is a willingness within the community as a whole to reach new heights, together. There is unlimited power and potential within these communities.

Objectives and goals can be achieved that were previously thought impossible and innovation thrives.

It’s important to remember that building a rainbow community is punctured with frustration and fatigue. They are vulnerable to human frailties. The rainbow community needs to be constantly maintained and revitalized to preserve its authenticity and its ability to perform at its peak.

The lesson: There is always the possibility that problems have not been effectively solved and that certain individuals are still struggling to let go of their closely-held paradigms. In this case, there is danger that the community will return to glorious chaos or even the pseudo-community and you’ll need to start all over again.

Rainbow communities therefore require ongoing attention and support.

Communication is the bedrock of human interaction – it’s the underlying foundation of the entire community-building process. Each phase of the process is reliant on effective communication and the ability to express themselves freely.

A typical member of a rainbow community would say something like, “I might not particularly like someone or always agree with their views but I respect their right to express themselves and am willing to listen carefully to what they have to say. More importantly, I am open to challenging my own paradigms when they become an obstacle to progress in the community and, if necessary, change them.”

How to build your rainbow community

  • Develop your higher purpose
  • Create an environment of safety where people are not afraid to express themselves freely
  • Be sure your employees feel genuine care and concern from those who are leading them
  • Identify ‘I specialists’ and deal with them effectively
  • Become comfortable with conflict; any community with humans will have conflict
  • Find new ways to deal with conflict and be sure your reaction is not defensive
  • Embark on a journey of self-discovery and challenge your own paradigms
  • Listen more than you speak; if you’re speaking, you’re not learning
  • Keep the channels of communication open

The rainbow community is a prize worth pursuing – it requires courage and conviction but it is the most powerful tool with which to build a successful business.

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