Photo from Sandbox Global Summit, January 2012 Lisbon, Portugal

Do communities exist to optimize for trust within (internal purpose) or to achieve external goals (external purpose)? Is both possible?

When teaching community building, I often get a variation of the following question: why do communities exist, for members to take care of themselves or to have some external goal?

Distinguishing internal purpose and external purpose

It makes sense to differentiate what kind of purpose a community has:

Communities with internal purpose exist to take care of themselves. The members come together to support each other, learn from each other, inspire each other, to feel a sense of fellowship, safety and belonging together. In the end of the day, this is about member to member relationships.

Communities with external purpose exist to pursue an external goal. For example: the members come together to support kids that can’t hear by raising money for them and connecting them with medical and technical solutions.

If I look at my definition of community (below), this distinction raises for me an important question: is a community with only an external purpose actually a community?

I would argue it is not. We have other terms for a group of people coming together to pursue an external goal: teams, projects, groups, initiatives, corporations, etc.

So if I use my definition for community, only groups that truly care about each other are actually communities. Or said differently: communities need an internal purpose necessarily to be communities. Otherwise they become like any other team and goal oriented initiative in the world.

Optimizing for trust or performance?

Another question that helps me differentiate between different kinds of groups is: what are the groups optimizing for?

Most teams, projects and corporations in the world optimize for performance. To perform a specific action towards one or several defined goals. Corporations by law have to optimize their actions towards maximum shareholder value.

Communities in my opinion are different. Communities are groups that optimize for trust.

What about groups with both internal and external purpose?

The two elements, internal and external purpose, actually positively influence each other. For example, a clear external goal (especially if it’s socially conscious and impact oriented) will help unite a group and strengthen the bonds within.

What about the other way around? Does trust lead to better performance? Will trusted relationships within a group allow for bigger external impact? I don’t know the data points behind this, but from a first look the evidence seems pretty strong. Trust makes relationships closer, more flexible, more innovative, more willing to share resources, more willing to be vulnerable. This showed up in Google’s Project Aristotle, where they studied hundreds of teams to figure out why some performed well, while others didn’t. The key indicator they found for strong performance was “psychological safety”. It is a term coined by the Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, defined as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”. Julia Rozovsky from Google writes: “Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives”.

While psychological safety and trust aren’t the same, they surely seem close. It seems intuitive that a group that has developed strong relationships within, will be a better place for risk taking than groups of strangers.

Why it’s rare to see communities with internal and external purpose combined

Despite all these reasons for internal and external purpose to play well together, I personally have experienced very, very few communities that actually, truly combine both a focus on internal trust and performance of external goals.

Here are some of the main reasons why:

  • I come across many communities that have stated objectives to pursue external purposes. But if you look at what they really, actually do, and why members go there, it is almost always about internal purpose and relationships. In my eyes, many communities use an external purpose mostly as branding and advertising. Critical voices would look at organizations like TED or the World Economic Forum in a similar way. They say they are about improving the world, but is that truly why people go there and actively participate? So even communities with stated external purpose might, in the end, be more/mostly about internal purpose.
  • I would argue that most people join communities for a very deep human need: to feel belonging, to feel loved and not to be alone. As the former US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy writes: “from a biological perspective, we evolved to be social creatures. Long ago, our ability to build relationships of trust and cooperation helped increase our chances of having a stable food supply and more consistent protection from predators. Over thousands of years, the value of social connection has become baked into our nervous system such that the absence of such a protective force creates a stress state in the body”. That deep biological need is stronger and more fundamental than our need to have external impact. Therefore, that’s what is truly driving people to join communities and stay active in them.
  • For most people, membership in a community is a part-time gig, it’s a hobby, a passion, a side thing. Most members in communities have busy lives beyond the community, jobs with full workloads. Therefore it’s not realistic for them to dedicate that much time to external goals. If they have to choose, they will probably prioritize their own projects before the community’s external goal.
  • Most communities have very limited resources and therefore only few (if any) overhead staff dedicated to drive external projects forward and coordinate / push their volunteer members. Instead, most energy is usually dedicated to fulfilling their internal purpose: organizing events, sending newsletters, connecting the members, creating value for them.

Is it possible to choose trust and performance as equal goals?

In the corporate context, if trust does create better performance, why don’t all teams and corporations deeply invest into trust and relationships? I don’t know the answer to that. But my feeling is that a group can not truly optimize for trust and performance equally. It has to choose an order of priority. If shit goes bad, what do we care about more: how much we get done or how we treat each other?

It is in those moments when I imagine their reactions will split:

  • Corporations will choose performance.
  • And hopefully communities choose their relationships to each other.

So communities don’t have any external impact?

My point here is not that communities can not have external impact. In fact, I would argue the opposite, that true communities can have a huge impact on the world around them. But it happens in indirect ways.

The individual level of impact: Communities are great tools to empower the individual projects and goals of the people in it. That’s why people join communities. Through the trust they find, they will find better collaborators, unlock resources they didn’t know about, find a place of belonging with peers, find support in the emotional ups and downs of life, feel like they’re home.

A platform for co-created impact: While it is very hard and unlikely to align all members of a community towards one specific goal that is defined top-down (for reasons mentioned above), it is very possible that some people within the community will choose to collaborate to achieve external goals by themselves. The fundamental difference here is, however, that the external purpose is self-chosen, emerges naturally, and only involves the members who genuinely care about it. It’s their choice.

I’d be grateful to hear from you and learn from your perspective: why in your opinion do communities exist and what is their role to have an external impact?

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