Colleagues to CommunityHave you noticed? We’re trying something new on Thin Difference this month. We’ve chosen a theme. Our hope is that by publishing several different perspectives on a specified topic, we’ll facilitate discussion and achieve one of Thin Difference’s goals of enabling cross-generational communication and connection. Our first theme is community.

When I sat down to tackle my “community” post, a memory immediately popped into my head. I saw a vivid picture of saddle shoes—my saddle shoes—stomping across the black asphalt of my grade school playground. The memory surprised me because it was one I usually associate with courage, and maybe even a little good-natured rebellion. But community? As I sat with the memory for a minute, I began to understand.

I should give you a little bit of background: I did a stint of hard time as a child. That’s right, I spent eight years in Catholic school. I grew up surrounded by a gaggle of nuns with Irish accents and navy blue habits. I looked forward to fish fries on Friday nights. I attended mass twice a week.

Every day at recess the boys and girls were separated, in part because “A simple hug today will lead to a pregnancy test tomorrow.” (A nun said that to us during health class. I’m not even kidding.) A thin white line painted down the middle of a black asphalt parking lot enforced the rule and ensured our segregation. Girls on one side. Boys on the other.

That white line was a serious temptation. Though nobody ever dared cross it, it stoked the rebellion in all of our hearts. We knew there was nothing truly dangerous on the other side; even at a young age, it felt like an arbitrary rule. So, encouraged by a group of girlfriends, one day I crossed the line. I stepped right over that white paint and made my way on to the “boys side.” I walked all the way through a rowdy soccer game, touched the far end of the parking lot, and walked right back. All the while my community stood by, making every step possible.

It’s been a few years since that playground walk and I’ve had a quite a few jobs in those years. Some jobs had cultures that inspired a strong sense of community, and I felt like I was back on the playground. Others did not. Even though my co-workers and I spent more than forty hours a week together at those jobs, we only ever felt like colleagues. We were people punching a clock side-by-side, doing what we had to do.

How to Recognize The Difference Between Colleagues and Community

So what’s the difference you ask? How does it feel and what does it mean to be part of a community rather than just to work among colleagues? My playground walk is a perfect illustration.

A Community Inspires and Encourages

I can’t remember if it was my idea to take that historic walk across the playground or if one of my girlfriends suggested it. Either way, when I agreed to do the deed, the whole group rallied behind me. They wanted to see me try something nobody else had. They wanted to see me do something that scared me a little, but would ultimately give me courage. They wanted to be part of something together.

Okay, admittedly my playground walk isn’t as impactful as what grown-up communities can achieve when they dream together, but you get the picture, right? When you’re part of a healthy professional community nobody cares about who came up with the great ideas, they just want to see those ideas executed well. A strong community wants to achieve together; no matter who does what part of the job. A strong community is looking for a group win.

A Community Cheers You On and Gives Moral Support

I remember looking down at my saddle shoes, feeling afraid, questioning if I had made the right choice and hearing my friends cheering me on. Amidst the slaps of the jump rope on the asphalt and the screams of the boys slide-tackling one another during their game, I could hear my friends calling out my name, laughing, and supporting our endeavor. They gave me courage. They pushed me forward.

When you’re part of a healthy community, you know your team has your back. When you doubt yourself, you know someone will be there to cheer you on. You know someone will be there to tell you you’re right on course, or someone will help you course correct if you aren’t. There’s safety in a community, and safety breeds confidence and success.

A Community Enables Your Chutzpah

I have a vague recollection of Sister Agnes being on recess duty that day. Certainly she had to notice my bright pink hair bow bouncing across the playground. There is no way she didn’t recognize that I had crossed the line into no woman’s land. But she turned a blind eye. Maybe she saw my cheering section. Maybe she knew I wasn’t ultimately doing anything too too dangerous. Maybe she thought the white line was ridiculous too. Whatever her reasoning, she let me do it. She didn’t ring the bell, stop me in my tracks, or send me back to the “girl’s side.” She enabled my chutzpah.

A good community does that. They help you do seemingly crazy things. They enable you to do things you never thought possible. A strong community helps you break old, blindly-accepted, outdated rules to accomplish something important. (Again, please realize I recognize my playground walk doesn’t equate to the big stuff daring adult communities are doing — but stay with me here.)

A Community Celebrates Victory Together

At the halfway point, I turned around to see a pack of girls dressed in blue plaid uniform jumpers watching every step I took. The closer I got to the white line, the more anxious we got. Would I make it? Was this really happening? They walked the whole way with me without taking a step, and as I crossed the line we celebrated together. We hugged and laughed and couldn’t believe I hadn’t passed out from the concentration of cooties I had just traveled through. My walk wasn’t my victory – it was a victory for all girlkind.

A close community celebrates wins together. Each member shares each success as if it was her own. They know cooperation and collaboration made the victory possible.

If these things aren’t happening in your current position, you’re probably surrounded by colleagues. And, though you can accomplish a lot with a group of colleagues, you won’t likely be writing a blog post about them decades later. Colleagues come and go, but community makes a lasting impression.