In Part 1 and Part 2 of my blog series on “Building Community,” I focused on the growing disease of social isolation, the problems it was causing, and what leaders might do about it. This post is about the real purpose of leadership.
When I think about community, I am reminded of Robert Putnam’s classic book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. He points out that in decades past, people joined bowling leagues for a sense of belonging. Now people seem to be less likely to join organized groups such as Rotary, PTA, and mainline churches. Putnam concluded that Americans need to work harder at connecting with one another because a sense of community is critical to our well-being.
After hearing Terry Gross interview Sheryl Turkle on NPR about her books Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, I bought both books and could not stop thinking about how technology was having a negative impact on our ability to build community in the workplace—college courses included. Turkle, an MIT professor, has been studying digital culture and communication for more than 30 years. Some of her conclusions:
- We would rather text than talk.
- We turn away from each other and toward our phones.
- We are forever elsewhere—not mindful and present.
- We have given up the art of conversation for electronic connection.
- We are “connected,” yet alone together.
“People who do not make time for conversation don’t learn how to have conversations.”
In a recent Harvard Business Review article titled “Workplaces That Move People,” Ben Waber, Jennifer Magnolfi, and Greg Lindsay discovered through research that “face-to-face interactions are by far the most important activity in an office.” They advise “getting employees to ‘collide,’ because creating collisions—chance encounters and unplanned interactions between knowledge workers, both inside and outside the organization—improves performance.” They advocate designing workplaces that promote and facilitate collisions because of the enhanced productivity, creativity, and satisfaction as a result of social interactions.
Since I have been focused on this topic, I contacted Peter Block, one of the Sages I interviewed for my book Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts, and a leading authority on the topic of community–both within organizations and in the broader sense of cities and communities–and author of the book Community: The Structure of Belonging. What follows is what I learned from our conversation.
Block said, “The real reason for leadership is to help people overcome social isolation. High performance is based on how connected people are to each other. The world does not understand the huge cost of social isolation (SI). Technology puts a “mask” on SI. We think we are less lonely because technology is a way to distract and not think about SI.”
“I help students fall in love with each other—get connected. The real purpose of leaders is to get people connected with each other. In an hour, there should be 40 minutes of interaction–in classes, workshops, meetings. If we want to change the culture, we need to change our conversations.”
“Change the questions. Ask: What’s the crisis you are facing in life? Not: What’s your plan? or What are the steps you are going to take? When we ask these latter questions, people are just as lonely as when the conversation started. Technology does not decrease SI and loneliness. It is not the answer to boredom, but an escape from connection.
For a good classroom, workshop, or culture, we need to create intimacy, trust, cooperation, safety among participants. This gives priority to learning and community building. Work on connecting with people you don’t like or trust. Focus on how we are creating something together that we care about.”
Block advocates using small groups as much as possible. Ask one question at a time:
- What are the crossroads you are at this point in time?
- What are you doing to contribute to helping or hurting the cause?
- What matters most to you today?
- What do you care about that you haven’t acted on yet?
“Leaders need to be architects in designing spaces that facilitate building community. If you want to overcome SI in this room, find two people in the room you know the least and start asking questions.”
- Why is it important for you to be here today?
- What are you doing to create the problem you’re trying to solve?
- What courage is required of you now?
“The questions are everywhere. Bring questions into the conversation.
Don’t ask about opinions or anything that would encourage complaints.
To become more powerful leaders, how did you act on this conversation?
Use power for the sake of conversation. Use power for encouragement.
“The purpose of leadership is to invite people together to create a future distinct from the past. Everything else is management.”
NOTE: My podcast series Becoming a Sage is emailed to subscribers on the second Friday of each month which will be Friday, March 10th. This is my interview with Gregg Levoy, author of Callings and Vital Signs and we talk about living life with passion and on purpose. Stay tuned!