Building your imagined community

Tuesday, April 12, 2016 - 17:43

The crowd is cheering, the flags are waving and there is a lightning buzz in the air. This is the scene many of us experience every time we watch an international sporting event.

Think back to the last time you went to a Socceroos, Wallabies or Matildas match, can you remember the feeling of intimacy you had with the strangers around you? This is what we call nationalism and as those who have attended leadership training will know, it is not just a feature unique to countries. 

An imagined community is more than just a characteristic of countries.

For organisational leaders, building a sense of community within their company can deliver a wide range of benefits. One of the most valuable is the increasing rate at which employees engage in behaviours that go beyond the call of duty.

So how can you develop a sense of identity and intimacy in your organisation and what specific benefits can you expect as a consequence?

An imagined community

Unlike previous scholars who held a negative perspective of nationalism, Benedict Anderson believed it to be an integrative and imaginative system that empowers people to feel solidarity with strangers. 

"In an age when it is so common ... to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, ... it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love," he wrote in his critically acclaimed book Imagined Communities. 

One of the core characteristics of an 'imagined community' is not that it is not real but instead, due to the vast distances that separate people, the relationships between members are imagined in some way. Organisations can leverage this to their advantage.

In today's world, where organisations can span multiple countries and include a range of ethnicities, building a sense of identity among employees can lead to a culture of productivity, accessibility and success. 

But developing a sense of shared identity is not something that happens overnight, nor will organisational leaders have complete control over it. Yet, there are a number of ways to influence its creation. 

Building a sense of community

To build a sense of community, employees need to be able to imagine the relationships between each other. To accomplish this, organisations must harness the power of communication to develop a common language and a shared pool of accessible knowledge.

In 1983, print media was the most advanced mass communication medium, however, organisations today have a range of platforms they can utilise - such as an internal workplace blog.

While blogging is sometimes construed as the pursuit of self-obsessed people, an internal blog can allow employees access to up-to-date information and stay connected with the otganisaiotnand other employees.

For instance, a study from the Queensland University of Technology, School of Advertising, Marketing, and Public Relations found that there was a significant link between internal organisational communication and optimal employee engagement. By delivering accessible information, leaders can galvanise employees and develop closer relationships that spur them on to greater heights. 

In and out

As the connections between employees strengthen, leaders need to ensure that the culture does not self-destruct. When Benedict Anderson was studying the phenomenon of nationalism, he came to the realisation that the imagining of the nation was also delimited. 

Every person is defined by the communities they belong to - Orson Scott Card

The delimitation refers to the boundaries of the nation, specifically who is in and who is out. As such, an imagined community also imagines who is excluded. In the commercial world, this can be a major obstacle when onboarding new employees.

However, there are a number of ways to overcome this. One of the most beneficial is aligning your HR processes with the dominant organisational culture. This means identifying candidates who fit within the parameters of the culture you have created. 

Additionally, employees can and do drift in and out of the organisational community. As such, leaders need to be sure they have their pay scales and performance management properly aligned. By doing this, they can clearly articulate to employees what is expected, thus setting up a series of norms that employees will adhere to. 

An imagined community is not just a characteristic of a country, it can also be a feature of successful company. Organisational leaders need to know how they can take advantage of this.