Part of the new series “Leading with Light and Empowerment”
Today, I read a great piece on Medium by Reid Hoffman called The Right Way To Build an Online Community: 3 Rules from Investor and Flickr Cofounder Caterina Fake. I loved every word of Caterina’s advice and couldn’t agree more.
Something that stuck me hard from the piece was a quote from Heather Champ, the first community manager on Flickr, who reportedly says repeatedly:
‘What you tolerate is what you are.’
In my view, as a writer, trained therapist, speaker and coach, I believe that truer words have never been spoken. This idea is important not only in building a positive, enriching community, but also in our personal and professional lives. In order to build something meaningful and constructive (including your own life), you have to be crystal clear about who you are, what you stand for, and what you will and will not tolerate. And you have to “find brave” every single day to enforce that.
The knowledge of who you are comes from a very deep understanding of not only your values, but how you will allow those values to be interpreted and acted upon. It’s about boundaries – knowing where you end and others begin – and knowing without doubt that you are worthy and powerful enough to set your own boundaries and shape how people treat you and what you create.
For many of us, including me, that’s not an easy thing. In fact, it’s extremely difficult, especially for those (including many women around the world) who’ve been raised NOT to be assertive, forceful and authoritative, or have experienced punishment and retaliation when they have asserted their boundaries.
Among the different groups and communities I’ve been involved with, I launched and ran for one year a Facebook group of approximately 2,300 members called Thriving After Narcissism. The group consisted primarily of adult children of narcissists who’d been deeply wounded by narcissistic and emotionally manipulative behavior, and wanted support and information to heal and overcome their painful challenges. Overseeing this group was an incredibly eye-opening experience for me in terms of what’s required to run a nurturing community while also allowing people to speak their truth – as emotionally hard and traumatizing as it is for many to reveal and hear those truths.
From that experience, and from building a wonderful tribe of over 730,000 followers on LinkedIn, and in the experience of running two courses and other membership communities, I’ve learned (often the hard way) that there are 4 critical ingredients to building communities that succeed in their goal of being empowering and enriching for those involved.
These 4 ingredients are:
#1: Understand clearly why the community exists and don’t lose sight of it
When you’re building a tribe or community, you have to understand the specific purpose of it – what you as the founder intend for the group. And you need to manage it from the perspective that this group isn’t for everyone. To do this, you need bravery to realize that you cannot and should not try to be everything to everyone.
When you try to be everything to everyone, you cease to offer anything helpful.
As an example, when I was running the Thriving After Narcissism Facebook group, I had a clear intention about the purpose – to support people who were longing to heal from narcissistic behavior that had wreaked havoc in their lives.
At one point, a man came into the group stating (almost boastfully) that he was a narcissist and wanted to be a part of the group to learn more about what he had done that was hurtful.
Members reacted negatively to this, and initially, something smacked as very disingenuous about him, and I was hesitant. But I was open to giving him a chance (that is another value I wanted to honor in this group – openness).
Sadly, from the start, his behavior was arrogant, defensive and offensive. He was hurtful to others, and put people down for what they shared. It was clear that his intention wasn’t to “learn” at all but to instruct the rest of the group on how they were all wrong in their interpretations of narcissistic behavior and in their feelings and experiences.
I found this challenging to do, and thought long and hard about it, but in the end, I did what was necessary and promptly removed him from the group. I didn’t waffle. I explained to him and everyone else the reason for this action: That this group was designed to help those who are suffering from the effects of narcissism in their lives and only those who wish to learn and grow from that experience are a strong fit with this group. Secondly, I made it clear that criticizing and ridiculing others’ for their beliefs simply wasn’t allowed and others would be removed if they engaged in that behavior.
These actions are decisions are not easy, but are essential in enforcing what you believe is in the best interest of your group.
The clearer you are about your intention and purpose for this community, the more you can honor that intention.
#2: Be strong about what you’ll tolerate and what you won’t
Having an idea about building a community, and actually doing it successfully, are radically different things. People behave in thousands of different ways from how you envisioned they would, and it’s so important that you are able to communicate (so everyone understands) what is within the bounds of acceptable conduct and communication, and what falls out of it.
I remember 25 years ago when I was first involved in running focus groups in my corporate market research role, the very skilled moderator we hired to run the groups, Anne Dobbs, always shared one rule clearly and assertively at the beginning of each and every group, and that was this:
“Every idea shared here has value, and we encourage your candid thoughts and feedback. However, we won’t allow participants here to criticize or put down other people’s ideas. We encourage you to build on a previous idea, but never put down other people’s thoughts or comments.”
And Anne would continue to enforce that powerfully, when the need arose.
I find that that one rule is essential to building a safe space were people can openly and honestly share what matters to them without fear or being ridiculed or ostracized.
Be clear to your community what is tolerable and what isn’t, and then muster the courage to enforce that.
#3: Know the scope of what you’re dealing and what is out of your depth
I run a number of groups that offer career and personal growth coaching and support. Occasionally, a member will share something that reveals that their emotional and behavioral functioning is impaired due to the challenges they’re experiencing.
As I’ve been a therapist, I am typically able to discern when a person is going through something for which therapeutic help would be beneficial, and when they’d be most likely better served by receiving ongoing therapeutic support rather than just coaching.
When that happens, I reach out to the individual and have an open conversation about how best to support them, and offer other options including pointing them to helpful therapeutic resources.
For me, the key is to “do no harm.” Certainly, most of us are well-meaning in our efforts in overseeing our groups and communities. But we CAN do harm if we don’t recognize early enough when we’re out of our depth, and when a member or group of members has taken a new direction that can be injurious to themselves or others. We need to have systems in place to recognize when the activities of members has branched into a new direction that can be damaging.
What Facebook is experiencing today, to me, is a clear case that points to this challenge – the leaders not understanding (and facing reality) early enough that particular members and clients/advertisers were behaving in ways that were injurious to our world and to other members. It was going on right under their noses for a long period of time, but they refused to act accordingly.
In the end, I felt compelled to close the narcissism group because several members indicated their intent to injure themselves and/or end their lives. I came to feel that my ability to serve these members as I wanted to simply couldn’t be done through a Facebook group. After informing the police of the stated suicide intentions (as is required), notifying Facebook, and following other key protocol, and making sure these members had the support they needed, I faced the realization that addressing these types challenges successfully was not possible in the way I wanted to, through a Facebook group. These are truly hard decisions, but necessary ones.
I know others run groups like this on Facebook and beyond, and they’re entitled to act as they see fit. But each of us has to make those decisions for ourselves.
Make sure that in your community, you have systems in place to monitor what’s happening, so you can take appropriate action to address what needs to be addressed in ways that protect your community at the highest level.
#4: Be the inspiring leader you long to, and set the tone in how you behave and communicate
Finally, as a founder of a community, how you behave, speak, lead and treat others will indeed set the tone. It’s like parenting – it doesn’t work to tell your kids “Do as I say, not as I do.” Children will do exactly as you do.
It’s the same with your community. They’ll behave the way you do. If you do your best to demonstrate integrity, clarity, compassion, kindness and generosity, for instance, then your behavior will serve as a filter for those qualities. People who don’t resonate with that type of behavior simply won’t be attracted to joining your group.
And people who want to surround themselves with others who are kind, compassionate, integrity-filled and generous will be drawn to your community and all that it offers and represents.
The way you behave is like a beacon of light – it will attract people who want that type of light.
In the end, founding and running an online (or in person) community is a profoundly enriching experience and an awesome responsibility that requires keen self-awareness, bravery, and commitment – to ensure that what you’re putting out into the world has positive effect, and to support the growth of the members in empowering, beneficial ways.