Gemeinschaftsgefühl: Building Community in the Workplace


NCLI CommunityThe building of a community around purpose in the workplace is a difficult and rare feat. Sadly, our society still values individuality and authority over community. When a community does form, though, it touches deep into your soul. You are able to be more authentic and be transformed. When individuals are working at their best for the common good, everyone benefits. I have been lucky to experience this sense of community a couple of times in my life.

When I worked for the archery industry, I was on several teams that built a great working community, allowing different views and encouraging some risk. While studying  Individual Psychology, I spent time with another amazing team, pushing each other to become better as people and as Adlerian practitioners. Just recently, though, I watched a community being built right in front of my eyes, through an elite program called the National Conservation Leadership Institute (NCLI), where I served as a peer coach this year. I revel in the feeling of community nearly a month later. The program is difficult to describe in full. I hope this breakdown will give you some clues as to how you can build community too.

What is this feeling?

As I reflect on this recent NCLI experience, I realized what I was feeling is what Alfred Adler called Gemeinschaftsgefühl, which when translated means Community Feeling (also referred to as social interest). For those of you unfamiliar with Alfred Adler, he is considered the father of Individual Psychology and his concepts are used in the Positive Psychology movement.

Social interest, as opposed to self-interest, is what Adler considered the sign of a normally adapting human. He said, “It is the individual who is not interested in his fellow men who has the greatest difficulties in life and provides the greatest injury to others. It is from among such individuals that all human failures spring.” We fail a lot because we are more focused on self than we are the greater community of beings.

As we prepared to enter back into the old “system”, after two weeks, I realized the NCLI is designed to create Gemeinschaftsgefühl and teach us how to create it in our workplaces. So, how does the program build this feeling of community?

Creating the Holding Environment

In adaptive leadership, the holding environment is a place where eustress; the good stress that pushes us to do better, doesn’t turn to distress; where people are less able to function. In the program, this is called the Zone of Productive Disequilibrium. The creation of this zone begins well before opening day of residency. Faculty Jill Hufnagel and Hugh O’Doherty, both senior associates at Cambridge Leadership Associates, practice what they preach at every moment – they are fiercely compassionate about leadership. I experienced this on the first day of the coach’s training when I was challenged around issues of validation. Thankfully, I was given the opportunity to overcome the issue throughout the residency.

All of the coaches were pushed and actively encouraged to challenge Hufnagel and O’Dougherty so they could grow too. We were actually assigned sections on the agenda where it was our job to challenge – to demonstrate taking risks to the fellows and make it safe to do so. We didn’t actually need the assignments as we all found our ways to intervene. Sometimes our input was helpful and other times it was not. During early morning and afternoon check-ins, we provided feedback to each other and discussed the effectiveness of our interventions. We did so with the intent to help each other stretch our capacity for leadership. With our own “container”, or our coach/faculty “Gemeinschaftsgefühl” in place, it was easier to create the holding environment for fellows.

Opening and Closing

How you open a meeting is usually how it goes. Our introductions helped set the stage for the experience because they included answers to the questions; what do you want people to know about you AND what don’t you want people to know. Answers to these questions provided clues to each person but more importantly showed themes around inferiority and vulnerability. We had the opportunity to demonstrate our common humanity at the outset. I said I was worried that topics around the human-nature connection that I am passionate about might be seen as “fluffy” and I’d be rejected as a result. Thankfully, several people asked me about my work later, not seeing it as “fluffy” at all.

At the end of the residency, we celebrated the community through a final dinner, slide show, and individual speeches. We heard words of kindness, gratitude, passion, and commitment to the community that had just been created. Mixed in was a little ribbing; my favorite, a new term PSHD or Post-Traumatic Hugh Disorder. For those who’ve experienced Hugh, who’s been with the program for all fourteen years of its existence, PTHD is simply a term to express his influence in personal and group transformation. Hugh is a master of Gemeinschaftsgefühl.

Growth opportunities

Throughout the twelve days of residency, fellows were given plenty of opportunities to stretch. The agenda was flexible enough so when group issues arose, they could be discussed without losing the lessons. And, a session on the final day provided space to review several interventions which had taken place. One was an attempted intervention by me around leadership versus authority. Unpacking the gap between intent and impact is a great aid in learning.

The cohort was split into six peer groups so that learning and challenge could continue in a smaller, more intimate environment. My group decided early that our purpose was to be challenging, trusting and supporting. We checked-in occasionally to assess how we were doing. I am grateful they identified growth work I needed to do and I got to see how group members showed up differently in the larger setting.

Finally, the agenda included time for reflection through journaling, a session on storytelling that wrapped up in actual stories around the campfire and plenty of evening networking and relaxing. I felt the community coming together during these times and it reminded me of my own residency more than ten years prior.

Gemeinschaftsgefühl for the future

Over the next nine months, our small group will continue sessions via phone and video. Then, we’ll all meet together again in June for the final residency, where our stretching will continue. At that time the entire group will become Alumni of this amazing program and join over 450 other graduating members. I’ve attended several alumni events over the years. Because the experience unites us, there is always an aura of community, even with people from other cohorts whom I’ve never met. This Community Feeling is a precious gift and I intend to continue spreading it in any way I can.

What steps are you taking in your workplace to create community?

Have you evaluated your team’s sense of community and risk-taking?

Feel free to contact me if you would like some input on assessing Gemeinschaftsgefühl /Community Feeling on your team.

“This sense of belonging that cannot be denied anyone, against which there are no arguments, can only be won by being involved, by cooperating, and experiencing, and by being useful to others. Out of this emerges a lasting, genuine feeling of worthiness. ” Alfred Adler

Tags: #community #psychological safety
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