Keeping community focused

I just came across a post from Seth Godin titled The worst voice of the brand is the brand. He says:

When a doctor rips off Medicare, all doctors are seen as less trustworthy.

When a fundamentalist advocates destruction of outsiders, all members of that organization are seen as intolerant.

When a soldier commits freelance violence, all citizens of his nation are seen as violent.

When a car rental franchise rips off a customer, all outlets of the franchise suffer.

Seems obvious, no? I wonder, then, why loyal and earnest members of the tribe hesitate to discipline, ostracize or expel the negative outliers.

“You’re hurting us, this is wrong, we are expelling you.”

I’ve seen this phenomenon many times: a group of talented, enthusiastic, passionate people (Linchpins) get together, form a group dedicated to a purpose…. and then rip it apart with politics, infighting, and backstabbing. I wrote about the phenomenon in Working with multiple linchpins: in most cases, the problem is not that you can’t get people to work, but that you can’t get people to stop working… or to agree on which direction the work should go.

This centrifugal tendency of linchpin-y groups is often used as evidence that a flat, democratic organization full of strong-minded individuals cannot compete with a hierarchical autocratic organization full of obedient sheep. But in fact, I believe the problem is a single misconception held by many communities:

“Equal and democratic” does NOT mean you have the right to act in ways that damage the community

It means that no one person has the right to tell others what to do. It means that every person must submit to the agreed-upon decision-making process. But if someone in the group is acting in a way that is detrimental to the purpose and process of the group as a whole, then the others in the community have not only the right, but the obligation to oppose those actions.

How to stop your worst voices

Set clear expectations

I discussed this in Working with multiple linchpins also: it’s almost impossible to get a bunch of linchpins working together unless you’ve all agreed ahead of time on what you’re trying to do, and how you’re going to get there. So make it clear what the group goals are, and make sure everyone knows that they’re expected to contribute to those goals.

Step in early

Maybe it’s just me, but I always have a hard time figuring out where to draw lines. If someone makes a comment that’s only a little offensive, do you say anything? If so, how do you justify slamming down hard on someone who’s only a little out of line? But if not, then how do you justify slamming down on the next comment, that’s only a little more offensive? Or the one after that, or the one after that?

The best solution I’ve found is to try to react in direct proportion to the offence. Instead of attacking all-out (“HOW DARE YOU SAY SUCH A THING! HAVE YOU NO RESPECT!”), I might respond to a mild insult with “Wow, that was harsh.” In most cases, mild reprimands will communicate your concern, and the other person will change their behavior. But in cases where it’s not enough, you’ve established a precedent for a more severe reprimand when the behavior continues.

Plan for negative outliers

When you set out the goals of the group, and work out a decision-making process, also decide how to handle someone who doesn’t comply with those decisions. Who will decide whether the accused is indeed in violation of the agreements, and how? How should group members handle someone they believe to be in violation of the agreements? What consequences will result from violating the agreements, and who will decide on them? As with all other decisions, these questions can be answered with a trial and jury, by a single executive, by group vote, or whatever other method fits your group and your circumstances. But having these agreements made ahead of time can prevent a lot of standing around, shuffling feet, glancing sideways at each other and wishing someone else would take care of it.

What else have you found helpful in keeping a community healthy and productive?