A Culture of Community: What It Is and Why It Matters

Looking to motivate your team? Dangling bonuses, perks, or vacation days may help in the short run. But if you want to create sustained, long-term impact, build a culture of community. Olivier Lazar explains how to cultivate a sense of belonging on your team and why it’s more important than ever.

Written by Olivier Lazar • 27 April 2023

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Call it the Great Disconnect. At the height of the Great Resignation last year, McKinsey asked employers why they thought their employees were quitting. Most cited factors like compensation, work-life balance, and poor physical and emotional health.

The reality, however, was considerably different. Among the top three reasons for leaving a job – cited by 51 percent of employees: they didn’t feel a sense of belonging at work. Another reason, cited by 46 percent: they wanted to work with people who trusted and cared for each other.

It’s not that compensation, work-life balance and physical and emotional health aren’t important. At the time, however, they just weren’t as important as employers thought they were. Hence the disconnect. But we shouldn’t fault employers too much. We tend to think of “soft” factors like a sense of belonging as being less important to employees than “hard” workplace realities – like compensation, benefits, or flexible work arrangements. In fact, they couldn’t be more important – not just for employees but for employers too.

A recent study, for example, found that people who share a sense of community at work are more likely to thrive, are more engaged, and are more likely to stay with their employer. A 2019 study by BetterUp also found that a sense of belonging can yield an increase in job performance, a reduction in turnover risk, and a decrease in employee sick days.

So, there are substantive business reasons for fostering a culture of community in the workplace. But how do you go about fostering this sense of belonging?

Start With Purpose

To me, it comes down to purpose – more specifically, ensuring there’s alignment between the organization and the individual employee’s purpose. A true sense of community emerges when employees believe they are engaged in meaningful work that advances some important business or societal objective.

Deloitte, in fact, reports that feeling aligned to the organization’s purpose, mission, and values – and feeling like your individual contribution matters – is the biggest driver of a sense of belonging at work. And in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review, authors Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Katarina Berg say that “the degree of meaning and purpose you derive from work may be the biggest difference between a job and a career.”

They go on to say that “when employees feel that they belong to a team or organization – in the sense that it aligns with their values and enables them to express important aspects of their identity – they will not only tend to perform better, but also experience higher levels of engagement and well-being.”

The same is true of project teams. Project leaders all have a responsibility to foster a sense of belonging by making sure all team members understand and buy into the project’s mission.

And it’s important that the project’s mission be meaningful or aligned with the company’s strategy. Your project may be a “success” in terms of scope, budget, and timing, but if it doesn’t deliver substantive value to the organization, it’s not going to feel meaningful to your team.

Sharing the mission and fostering a sense of belonging is a cyclical phenomenon. It starts at the top – with the team leader on projects and with the CEO within the larger organization – but it is then cascaded down from the leadership team to employees. If employees are aligned with the mission, their positive engagement feeds the process and creates a virtuous cycle.

Professional Communities Lend Support

Even if the larger organization doesn’t cultivate a culture of community, it’s important to foster one within your team. You can also go outside the organization to find a supportive community. A good place to start is a professional organization. What distinguishes PMI, for example, is not just its certifications but the community it provides through its many local chapters.

I've been involved with PMI as a volunteer for the best part of 20 years – serving on boards and event organizing committees and helping with standard translations. These have been some of the best personal and professional development opportunities of my life. The sense of community has been unparalleled.

So, what should you do to foster a culture of community on your team or within your organization?

  • Start with your “why.” Understand your team’s mission – its larger purpose – and share that with your team. Simon Sinek’s famous “Start with Why” has been required reading on many of my teams.
  • Use your mission and values in recruiting. Probe to understand what the potential employee seeks in terms of purpose and make sure it’s aligned with your organization’s mission. The best candidates are those who in fulfilling your organization’s mission also fulfill their personal mission.
  • Value inclusion. Understanding how culture works within a community is very important. And very difficult because culture is complex and multi-layered. There’s national culture, generational culture, corporate culture. You need to understand how they all work individually and in concert to create a culture of community.

Finally, turn to PMI for support and resources – for your team and for yourself. We are a community, after all. That’s central to our mission.

Community     Culture    Teams     Motivation     Networking

Olivier Lazar headshot

Olivier Lazar
Vice President, Youth & Social Impact | PMI

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