“Being lonely is extremely bad for your health. If you’re lonely, you’re more likely to be put in a geriatric home at an earlier age than a similar person who isn’t lonely. You’re less likely to exercise. You’re more likely to be obese. You’re less likely to survive a serious operation and more likely to have hormonal imbalances. You are at greater risk of inflammation. Your memory may be worse. You are more likely to be depressed, to sleep badly, and to suffer dementia and general cognitive decline.”
We live in a unique time. We’re the most connected culture ever while also struggling with incredible loneliness.
The workplace is often a microcosm of this larger reality. With five generations coming into their own within our culture, four of which are in the workplace, the challenge of building community has never been more difficult.
Building Relationships in the Workplace
I often feel paralyzed by my role in establishing community between generations who feel like they’re moving further and further apart. I have three generations represented on my team of 7 and five generations represented within the volunteer base of our organization.
The lie which many of us believe (myself included) is that community is something we discover. Like reaching over for our iPhones in the morning, I think many of us believe one day we will stumble into community.
Four Qualities That Help Build Community
In fact, I identified four things we can all do to build community. Any of us can do these things. They do not depend on position or title. We don’t need a budget or project approval to move forward. These four qualities help us to build community wherever we are.
We often buy into the myth which says we have nothing in common with those around us. While our tastes, preferences, and past experiences may be different, we have a ton in common.
We desire fulfillment in our work. We want our lives to have some larger sense of meaning and purpose. We long for significant connection with other people. Writer Erwin McManus calls these our “soul cravings” — meaning, destiny, and intimacy.
I also believe we’re united by the struggles we face. Everyone is either headed into, in middle or headed out of a crisis. Philo of Alexandria once wrote, “Be kind, because everyone you meet is in a great battle.” When we focus on what we have in common, instead of what separates us, we have a platform on which to build relationships.
In every job I’ve held since high school, I’ve been shocked to find that the people who I first doubted I had anything in common with ultimately became people who shared great conversations with me. We always had more in common than we realized and when we focused there, we built great working relationships.
Community is never built apart from intentionality. And we struggle to be intentional. In December every year, we all exhibit the same lack of intentionality when we say, “Yeah, hey, let’s get together after the holidays.” Yet, the sentimentality rarely converts into intentionality.
Just as community is never built without intentionality, it’s also never built without patience. Our intentions must be sustained and repeatedly transformed into habits. Building a deep sense of community rarely happens overnight. This is why seasonal programs and short-lived initiatives often fall flat because they are not long-term intentional practices.
I’ve been serving on staff within my organization for ten years. We’ve seen staff come and go in that time, but I’m grateful for the relationships I’ve built. Those came in handy in 2014 when our pregnancy with twins almost ended prematurely and my wife went on bedrest for 18 weeks. I was so thankful for the friendships I built, which helped communication and led to great support.
You don’t realize how much you need people until you need people. And if you haven’t created community when you weren’t desperate for it, you won’t have it when you’re desperate for it.
Community is fueled by vulnerability. This is why most of us settle for superficial relationships, especially at work. We do all we can to avoid vulnerability, so no one can get close enough to hurt us.
But we can only be loved and supported to the extent we are known. Every one of our relationships moves at the speed of trust. The greater the trust, the further and faster we can go. If you imagine the gas tank in your car, then trust is the fuel. When you’re on empty, you think twice before going anywhere. But when you have a full tank, you’re set for a road trip.
Authenticity still scares me every time. I can remember a meeting last year where I was afraid to share what I felt was a divergent perspective. My heart beat faster and faster. But once I shared, I had so many people come up to me and thank me for saying what they couldn’t. The conversation changed entirely once one person was vulnerable.
Building relationships at work is scary because it means you could get hurt. But the stakes are actually worse than getting hurt. Dr. Ed Stetzer writes, “the danger of being in community is hurt; the danger of not being in community is a shipwreck.” When crisis hits and we don’t have people, the consequences can be great.
Cause creates community. It always has and always will. In The Lord of the Rings, we read about Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring, which will face death countless times out of commitment to help him get the ring to Mordor. Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill came together to defeat Germany in World War II. If you’ve ever been involved in team sports or building community partnerships, you know the feeling of surprise when you look over and find someone who is quite unlike you fighting for the same cause.
Henri Nouwen once said, “Community is the fruit of our capacity to make the interests of others more important than our own.” A common purpose takes our focus off our personal agendas and puts it squarely on something which is bigger than us all. This is why Jim Collins wrote about the B.H.A.G. in his bestselling book, Built to Last. A Big Hairy Audacious Goal brings people together and convinces them that they can do far more than they comprehend. Whether it was JFK’s goal of putting a man on the moon within a decade or Microsoft’s BHAG to put a computer on every desk and in every home, a common purpose which demands everything from everyone helps a company succeed, with an incredible by-product — a strong, vibrant community.
When we focus on commonality, connect with intentionality, share with vulnerability, and commit to a common purpose, remarkable experiences of community can emerge, which make coming to work more fun and meaningful…even on Mondays!