Creating Community

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Last week I wrote that creating community is leadership work. This week, I’d like to share some of my experiences as a leader working to create community in organizations.

Colleges and universities are complicated places with multiple systems of governance. Divisions have completely different values and reward systems. There are departments with widely varied purposes and staff with entirely different types of education and training. It’s not at all surprising that one of the most common complaints about working in higher education is about the silos.

“Organizational silos describe the isolation that occurs when employees or entire departments within an organization do not want to, or do not have the adequate means to share information or knowledge with each other. Siloed teams often end up working in isolation from the rest of the company, leading to a plethora of internal and external problems..”

Add to all of this the drives toward efficiency, doing more with less, and compliance and regulation. It’s no wonder people often feel overwhelmed just getting their own work done. To create community, we have to work against the human tendency toward silos.

Invest in Staff

When I began working at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), the Division of Student Affairs was nineteen different departments. They ranged from Athletics to Counseling Services, from Financial Aid to Student Activities. Staff education included medical degrees, Ph.D.s, Master’s degrees, and GEDs. It made perfect sense that the various offices and staff members felt little to no connection to each other. Here are a few of the ways we invested in staff and worked to create community across our division. (All of this addresses my version of the ‘How’ part of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle. See 8/6/19 blog post.)

  • Develop a common language through the shared experience of True Colors workshop for every staff member.
  • Create a conceptual framework for excellence in service and programming. (The Four C’s: Communicate, Connect, Collaborate, Create)
  • Engage staff in the work of the division by creating cross-departmental teams to solve problems (internal business processes) and meet division needs (assessment, staff development, training).
  • Design an orientation process for new staff that included an introduction to Student Affairs, True Colors, and training on the 4Cs.

Fun with purpose

We also created opportunities for people to have fun together. Picnics before basketball games, end of the year celebrations, and food drives during the holidays all added to the sense of community.  (And no, I don’t believe in ‘mandatory fun.’ These were optional.) We often hear about the need for our organizations to be more efficient, and budgets are tighter than ever before. However, I believe spending a relatively small amount of resources investing in staff members benefits our organizations in ways that far outweigh the costs.

Investing in staff means they feel more valued. Creating community results in improved workplace experiences and, therefore, improvements to the student experience. Of course, each organization is unique and will require different activities to create community. But in my experience, it is possible to create community in the workplace. And it is well worth the time and resources.

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