I get to see what genuinely excites high-achieving professional people. We long to be seen, to feel safe and to belong. Seen for the full gift of who we are. Safe to express without judgment. Collaborating in ways that amplify creativity. In short: the feeling of community.

I have had the good fortune to participate in some amazing experiences of community. As I suspect is true for you too, I have also seen countless attempts to create teams, networks, families and communities to foster these qualities that do not get all the way there, and many that are spectacularly unsuccessful. As we establish our Mutual Empowerment Online community of leaders who inspire each other, I have been thinking about what makes for a thriving community. Here are three keys.    

How We See Each Other
To initiate people’s entry in our online community, we facilitate a five-session program. The first session includes an activity called “Be Your Full Potential”, where each person gets to reveal their own sense of the best of who they are. It is actually quite confronting, as most of us are not used to speaking about ourselves in this way. The really powerful piece is when each of us hears fellow participants reflect back to us how they see our gifts.

Whenever I am in a group responsible for delivering a result, I notice how quickly we all become trained to look for problems that we can fix. A culture emerges where my main contribution becomes to uncover what someone else might be missing. Fair enough for certain purposes. While there is a place for correction and feedback, starting there does not foster this sense of being deeply seen for who you are. Without that, people withhold their full selves and show up increasingly as roles. Cogs in maybe a beautiful machine, more than active participants in a living ferment of personal and professional growth. So we have to retrain ourselves to see the best in each other and tell them what we see, frequently; to establish that as the norm for this forum. Here, seeing and being seen for who we are is a priority.        

Making It Safe
In my blog earlier this month, we noted how the number one fear people report on surveys is social embarrassment, in one form or another. Most of us live in fear of the judgment of others, including those of us who proudly proclaim they don’t care what other people think.  

So we read in the guidelines of many group discussions: no judgment. Good luck with that! Have you ever tried to stop yourself having a judgment? We are making assessments about each other all the time. It turns out lip service to a judgment-free zone does not make people feel any safer. Yes, we may all wish it could be so but few of us believe such a proposition is realistic. Anyway, if we don’t make an assessment about the challenges someone is facing, how can we offer help?

The key is in the way we share our assessments, to speak our experiences not just our advice. Whenever you make an assessment, whenever you want to advise a colleague how to proceed, you can take your judgment deeper. Ask yourself: where did I learn my approach to this topic? Find a similar situation you experienced and speak about that experience. Instead of feeling judged, this lets the person feel kinship with you. “We have been through something similar.” Invariably they learn more from getting the benefit of your experience than from your opinion.             

Effective collaboration depends on founders and leaders giving away the power and permission to make a difference. In a living system, autonomy is delegated to the maximum amount possible without compromising safety. The brain, for example, doesn’t tell the heart when to beat. As a founder in this emerging community, I want each participant to have permission to contribute his or her gifts fully. 

I am well aware this is not about abdicating my contribution. Tried that—making myself smaller so others could feel bigger—and it doesn’t work. I still articulate the vision, as much as is needed not to leave people rudderless, and I still make sure the information is clear as to where the safety boundaries are and why. However, my joy is elevated by the difference others make. 

I live to encourage and celebrate all of your contributions, at whatever level, in whatever way. Thank you for being who you are!