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The Roy Group Team takes a pause to build a sense of community at Bilston Creek Farm

Conversations With Roy: How To Build A Warm And Productive Community

We’ve been thinking a lot about pause over the summer. Our chief of staff noted hundreds of out-of-office emails when we sent out a recent announcement about the 2021 MacGregor Cup.

This is good news. After 18 months of discombobulation, it seems like people have taken a serious pause. What if—collectively—the world begins to understand, like never before, the value of pausing? The value of coming together again? To play, to relax, to wonder, to savour spending time in each other’s company?

Our practice lead for Education, Heather Gross, recently took a holiday to Alberta to gather with family. Since Heather is known for her gift of building community, Roy sat her down to talk a bit about how to do that.

This is the first in our Conversations With Roy series, where our team members gather to talk through our best insights on what’s important now.

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What are you paying attention to these days? What are you noticing?

I’ve been thinking about building community a lot. I’ve just transitioned from a place that really prides itself in community building and has been a community I’ve been very engaged with. That’s Pearson College UWC. Transitioning into new communities of practice has been interesting. And transitioning out of COVID means thinking again about community and especially about gathering: How do we gather again?

I was anxious about visiting family in Alberta recently. My wife and I were ready for that unique pause that a holiday gives you, and were very keen to see family. From a scientific perspective, I was ready to go for it…and yet I still had all this anxiety. I noticed that we did a bunch of things that felt familiar and welcoming. That helped. Right? Sitting around a table really helped. Working together on food really helped. Calling each other by name as “Aunty”. Even how we gardened together. That was something we could do outside, and everybody could opt into that process. That opting-in is something I’ve been thinking about as we gather with groups.

What else?

I have my first in-person facilitation with Roy Group next week. I’m thinking about all the rituals of what we do in person around being in a circle, being ready for people, having things prepared. We do that professionally, but we do that personally also, like making the food that somebody likes, and getting things ready for gathering.  This was something I really missed this year. For sure we came up with inventive and virtual options, but many of them were ersatz solutions for the time-honoured act of convening around a table.

This idea of rituals…we had those taken away from us during the pandemic. How has turning back to a familiar way of doing things been grounding for people? What do rituals mean for us?

Well, definitely there’s something about “the things that make us part of the group”. So the things that we know how to do, and in showing that we know how to do the work, we’re aligning ourselves with community. I was experiencing it on our holiday with family for sure. And they’re not big-R rituals. They’re small-R rituals. Like how we load the dishwasher. How we roll the dough. The small-R rituals of deferring to grandparents, and making decisions based on the needs of family peacemaking.

I’m not sure two years ago we could have listed all of the things that we do, but it’s fascinating to notice what we’re recovering. It’s so grounding, being part of a community. Helping people be comfortable and to know what’s coming next, so they can worry about how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking about rather than “what to do”. Rituals that come up in life transitions (births, celebrations, deaths) are really about members of a community knowing what to do, so they can get on with the work (care, rejoicing, grief).

What you were saying there, about when you’re gathering or doing more in person. Part of the work is to help people feel comfortable by helping them know what’s next. We’re always asking ourselves, What is it time for? How has it been hard for people in the last year not to know what’s coming next?

Yeah, this time was perhaps a gift of the ultimate “living in the present” moment. And yet it’s not really a gift when it’s because of a traumatic event. We were given this wonderful opportunity to live in the present: Today I’m going for a walk around the lake. This is what I’m doing. I don’t know tomorrow if I can go to the office or not. But also we had: Today, I don’t know what’s going to happen with this unseen, unknowable health crisis and pandemic situation. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the rest of the world. There’s a lot of uncertainty about that. I think the “not knowing what it’s time for” has been about what’s unknown, but it’s also been influenced by this being such a time of anxiety for people. It’s been an invitation to simply focus on what’s happening. What can I do right now? versus What can I control in the future?

Right. And we turn to each other in times of uncertainty. Can you talk about why a sense of community is important on teams and within organizations?

Community is the fastest way to build safety in a team. Feeling like you’re part of the mission. Like you’re part of what’s happening, that you have a role to play. I think building community—even in ways of sharing food and connecting across ideas and personal experiences—builds that belonging. That’s key for people being productive and bringing themselves to an issue.

There’s that important word, belonging.

Huge. It’s really important to look at how we build community in person, to look at how we build it in distributed teams, not only for the fun parts of it and the joy and the good feelings that can come from gatherings, but also so that we’re ready for when we face trouble. Knowing you can count on your community to step in and to help solve a problem, regardless of domain or sector or role, means a lot to leaders and to team members. And the time to build community is before you need to test its strength.

What tips can you give for building community? That sense of belonging?

I think there’s something about setting the table, being ready, preparation. There’s something about checking in, having a time for people to bring what they’re bringing to the gathering or conversation, whatever that is. The emotional piece. Here’s where I’m at today, and to have that be okay. There’s something about conduct, and acting in a way that both holds confidence but also invites participation and invites space for others. So being careful about big claws.

Right. For readers who don’t have the background, the big claw is a concept we use when we’re talking about directive vs non-directive approaches to leading. Lobsters have a big claw for, you know, getting it done. It’s the crusher claw. It fights. It defends. It controls outcomes. And quite often we see leaders using the big claw, when actually, it’s the little claw that frees people on teams into their own power. This claw is called the cutter claw on an actual lobster. It’s about cutting ties with needing to be in control. Little-claw leadership asks questions. Leading with the little claw means you’re less concerned about needing to be right, or giving advice. Instead, you’re more interested in letting others have ownership of whatever they’re working on or grappling with.

I’ll add another tip for creating community that ties to leader behaviour: be mindful about your conduct as a leader. In terms of noticing when you’re the voice talking, noticing who else is gathered, noticing who might be missing.

So great. We have a sticker for that, too! It’s the W.A.I.T. sticker. Why Am I Talking?

It’s sticker day on the Roy Group blog! Yeah, W.A.I.T. is a tough one for people—especially leaders, who feel this pressure to always know the answer. But you can’t. Back to the theme of building community, I think there’s also something about doing something meaningful together. Working together for a common goal, maybe making something together, playing together or engaging in nature together. It distracts people from “having to socialize”…and therefore they socialize ever so much more meaningfully. Doing something together that’s meaningful often allows other things to happen. In my family, this shows up as travelling together, cooking and, most often, doing the dishes!

One of the things we’ve been noticing is that in the wake of the pandemic, people are much more inclined to show up in a transparent way. In a vulnerable way. What can leaders do to foster and encourage that?

I’ve also noticed that. I think it’s also the confluence of things happening. Thinking more about anti-racism, what does that look like? What does it look like to take these global crises, like the pandemic but also climate change, seriously? There’s a sense of urgency, I feel. Like: If not now, when? For people who are sincere in their work, I think that can be quite compelling for being vulnerable and transparent. For bringing their whole selves. If not now, when? It’s a reminder that we just can’t predict what’s around the corner. So we might as well try and do our best work now. And bring our best selves to that work.

Throughout the past two years, a major crisis I dealt with was walking the road of decision-making and then implementation around closing an international school in a matter of a week. We dealt with the acute uncertainty, fear, adversity, crisis and trauma that then resulted. I saw that bringing our whole selves to those issues allowed us to deal with them. We have evidence now that being vulnerable in that space can actually be productive.

What’s a leader’s role in that kind of situation? Because those aren’t going to go away, we all know that now.

Yeah. Well, noticing what’s going on, I think. Inviting all the voices in the room. Inviting all ideas. Because we were dealing with something we’ve never dealt with before. And so, really looking for who might have a voice in that? Who might we have forgotten or overlooked? How can we discipline ourselves as a community to consistently listen to more people? How can you create patterns of strong communication and a sense of belonging before you need to “close the school” or whatever challenge you are faced with.

What else jumps out around building community?

I think we were really creative about how to have fun for a while there, at the start of COVID. We need to exercise that muscle a bit more now! I noticed at the beginning of the pandemic in my circle of friends, we were really keen on doing trivia nights. And people were like, “Woo! What can we do online?” And we petered out of it. I think we have an opportunity now to revive some of that in person, and relax into some fun things with our teams.

So…have fun. Do meaningful things together. Pay attention to each other. Put the big claw away. Solicit a broad range of thinking. Be open and transparent. These are great tips for teams, Heather.

You bet. And one other thing: this is a time of big, rolling changes. Everyone knows we need to work differently now. With purpose, and focus. At Roy Group, I’ve been fascinated to join in with the facilitation of a method from our friends at Cognitive Edge called Future Backwards, where you sit down with your team and essentially write a script with two endings. You write about what’s happening now in your organization, and what led to it. And then you write about what would be your nightmare for the future? What would be your dream? And you work backwards to connect to where we are today. That really helps a group be intentional about a shared commitment to working for the dream.

That’s a very powerful exercise for a team to help keep its eyes on a shared vision. Interested folks can connect with any of our practice leads
to explore the idea of running a Future Backwards with their team. Thanks, Heather. This was a great conversation to share with you.

Conversation builds community, you know it.


Heather Gross is Roy Group’s Practice Lead for Education.

Work with Heather to learn how to build community with your team.

Get in touch.