Are you building a community or an organization?

Business owners building a business, or supervisors building a unit within a business, all have a hand in creating the culture and subculture of the organization as a whole. One of the major considerations of that culture revolves around the question: Are you building a community or an organization?

A community, by definition, is inclusive. It makes room for individuals and their diverse proclivities, biases, illnesses, disorders — the whole shebang! In building communities, all who are in them or get to share in their space, for however long, will need to make room for each other.

There are lots of examples: this person is a hot head, and so we must give him or her license to rant and rave about everything before we address this or that matter. Or this person has migraines so we accommodate that by accepting it when he or she can’t show up. In some cases, a bloody relationship ended in a bloody divorce so we listen to the stories and deal with the person’s deep distrust of the opposite gender. Or, maybe this person is an addicted smoker or a jokester, so we have to deal with the stink of cigarettes or listen to lame or off-color jokes.

You get the picture? In a community it is inclusive, and people derive a benefit from the closeness that ensues despite the negatives that inherently exist. A community is, by definition, democratic and very permissive.

However, communities are not the best plan for businesses—organizations are the way to go. And, an organization is, by definition, exclusive. If you follow the organization’s rules, policies and do things a certain way (our way), there will be efficiencies and profits to be had by all. Those who will not or do not do things our way will be expelled. Organizations are formed to accomplish objectives and to achieve results.

While communities are also formed to achieve results, it’s usually in different contexts. For example, a family is usually considered a community. We may not particularly like the choice of a relative’s spouse but he or she is welcomed and (at least) tolerated at Thanksgiving Dinner. We may not appreciate a family member’s choice to put a big ugly tattoo where it can easily be seen, but that member will be invited to the Fourth of July family picnic. We may not approve of a lot of things members of our family community do, even drug usage, but we accept them and in cases like drugs, hope they get better. Similarly, church groups and fraternities or sororities are often communities.

There are business owners who often try to build communities. I had a client who really believed in second chances and benevolence. He hired many ex-convicts and others who were high-risk individuals. As I was touring his plant, I noticed a person operating a grinder. There were sparks flying and the noise was deafening. I immediately noticed that the operator was not wearing ear or eye protection. I pointed out the obvious OSHA violation, and the owner’s comment was that he had asked the employee to wear the protection many times, but the employee refused, was mentally challenged and could not do any other job in the plant. He said that this employee could, and would, stand at that grinder all day and operate it, but he wouldn’t wear the eye or ear protection.

The owner asked me, “Should I fire the guy or let him work and earn a living?” Is this owner exploiting this employee or being benevolent? If he were operating an organization, this worker would be out, but since he is building a community the employee is accepted. Accepted, however, along with the risks.

So what are kind-hearted, open-minded business owners to do? I usually advise my clients to operate an organization, rather than a community. It is much harder to actually become a community than become an organization. In fact, the two are mutually exclusive: you can’t be both at the same time. This is at the heart of many conflicts between managers or owners. One can operate an organization, be exclusive and still have a very healthy organizational climate. Organizations thrive on order and economy and are best suited to capitalism and profit making. They are not the place to help change a person’s life; there are other options and avenues for that purpose. As I have said many times, don’t hire ministries if you want a profitable business.

Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Steve Cohen

Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., CMC is President/Partner of Labor Management Advisory Group, Inc. and HR Solutions: On-Call, both based in Kansas City, MO.Often described as a “mess management” expert for his ability to skillfully resolve people prob…

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