Mastering Community

The Surprising Ways Coming Together Moves Us from Surviving to Thriving


By Christine Porath

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From the author of Mastering Civility, a thoroughly researched exploration of the impact and importance of building thriving communities, with actionable steps on how to create them in your work and broader life.

In her powerful new book, Christine Porath explores how the rise of technology and modern workplace practices have fractured our communications yet left us always “on” digitally. Through now common practices like hot-desking and remote work (even without the added isolation of social distancing we experienced during the pandemic), our human interactions have decreased, and so too have our happiness levels. This lack of a “human factor” is sparking a crisis in mental health that will have repercussions for years to come, leaving people lonelier and making the bottom line suffer, too. What Christine has discovered in her research is that leaders, organizations, and managers of all stripes may recognize there is a cost, but have no idea as to implement the cure: Community. 
With her signature depth and grasp of research across myriad industries including business, healthcare, hospitality, and sports, Christine extrapolates from the statistics on the experiences of hundreds of thousands of people across six continents to show us the potential for change. Through sharing information about the community, empowering decision-making discretion and autonomy, creating a respectful environment, offering feedback, providing a sense of meaning, and boosting member well-being, anyone can help a community truly flourish. The applications are endless, the stories are positive and uplifting, and will inspire the reader to establish and grow their community—be it in the workplace or the PTA—and make it thrive.


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A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all men, women, and children. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.

—Brené Brown

We yearn for connection. But we are disconnected. We find ourselves on platforms, not in communities. It doesn’t help that many traditional sources of community have withered. In neighborhoods, kids may gather. Adults, not so much. Droves of people have stopped attending church. And far fewer people are going into a workplace. The very future of the workplace, and the sense of community we felt at work, is at risk.

Despite our deep desire to feel a sense of belonging, many of us struggle to feel a part of a team (or to find a team!). We’re on the sidelines. Stuck. The more hours we log there, the tougher it feels—our confidence plummets, our will wanes, our sense of isolation increases. We languish. We break. We numb.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can move from surviving to thriving, together. Someone in my own family showed me how.

*  *  *

In 2008, my brother Mike and his wife Sarah had a truly terrible, life-changing day. In the morning, a doctor informed them that their unborn child was missing a kidney and possibly other organs. That afternoon, they returned home to even more devastating news: their two-year-old daughter Annabel had a rare chromosome disorder, dup15q, and her mind would probably not develop beyond that of a five-year-old child.

Feeling lost, scared, and alone, Mike turned to Google. “I wasn’t prepared for this very rare disease that we’d never heard of,” he said. “I didn’t know how to parent a kid like this.” Most of the guidance he found online was unhelpful. But then he clicked on a PDF file containing six stories from parents whose children experienced autism, thirty to forty seizures a day, and other disabilities. These were the most powerful stories Mike had ever read, and that’s saying a lot given that he had worked as a journalist for ABC News, NBC News, and the New York Times. Containing joy and humor, they offered reason for hope. If these parents could cope with these disabilities and even find joy in the process, maybe Mike and his wife could do the same.

Mike grew more optimistic after he and his wife conquered another parenting challenge. Typically, children pick up food and other items by using their forefinger and thumbs in a “pincher grasp.” Annabel had trouble with this pincher grasp and couldn’t pick up anything, including her favorite food. Mike and Sarah turned to therapists, doctors, and other pediatric specialists, and when nothing helped, Mike again resorted to Google. He posted the pincher grasp question on a message board, and the mother of a dup15q child replied with a solution. Mike and Sarah followed her directions, cutting two tiny holes in a sock—one for Annabel’s forefinger, another for her thumb—and placed the sock-glove on her right hand. They put a normal sock on her left hand so she couldn’t “cheat” and grasp an item using her two wrists. Every day at mealtime, Annabel’s parents equipped her with the sock-gloves and placed some delicious blueberries in her dining tray, knowing how irresistible she found them. Within a month, not only had Annabel activated her pincher grasp—she’d mastered it!

Health solutions, Mike realized, can be simple, and the best ones often reflect lived experience rather than professional expertise. Family and friends are great, Mike told me, but people facing health challenges need a tribe. Instead of asking isolated questions on lone message boards, they need a network, a flesh-and-blood community, and an organized, moderated forum for discussion. He imagined a series of dinner parties, where a diverse mix of doctors, caregivers, researchers, and patients could convene in an intimate, comfortable setting to ask questions or simply seek support. Eventually these dinner parties would morph into something bigger and continuous, like a global network. Such a network had potential for global reach and impact. If well executed, he thought, it could even form a blueprint for the future of healthcare.

In 2014, Mike and Sarah bootstrapped a new venture they called The Mighty, a digital media company connecting people facing disease, disability, and disorders. Since then, The Mighty has grown from a tiny team of several dozen to the largest, most engaged healthcare community in the world. The Mighty has attracted millions in venture capital and now hosts over three million members who exchange advice and provide support in seventy-eight different languages. In 2019, after members clamored for in-person meetings, The Mighty orchestrated over one thousand nondigital meetings. Every month, The Mighty stories receive over one hundred million views and the community sends over twenty million emails to members. Many members post questions for others, like the post from a man from Portugal. After asking about his bipolar disorder, the man received feedback the next day from people in fifteen different countries, including developing African nations.

More people today find themselves feeling like Mike on the day he received the devastating diagnoses about his children: alone and disconnected. Our society is increasingly divisive and nasty, lacking the security, support, and warmth of traditional communities. A revealing study showed that the number of “close others” that Americans claimed to have in 1985 was only three. In 2004 this dropped to one, with over 25 percent of Americans saying that they have no one with whom to share a personal problem. Our well-being has declined in turn.

From 2013 to 2016, major depression rose by 33 percent, according to data from forty-one million Blue Cross Blue Shield health records.1 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of suicide in the United States increased 28 percent between 1999 and 2016.

Isolation has also damaged business performance. My colleague Tony Schwartz and I asked over twenty thousand people across diverse industries and organizations around the world about their quality of work and life. The fundamental question we sought to answer was: What stands in the way of being more satisfied and productive at work? This survey was posted on Harvard Business Review (and later on Huffington Post, where we collected a small proportion of responses). We published results in Harvard Business Review and the New York Times. Our study found that 65 percent of people don’t feel any sense of community at work. Another study found that 76 percent reported difficulty making connections with work teammates.2 Over 40 percent feel physically or emotionally isolated in the workplace.3 Lonelier workers reported lower job satisfaction, fewer promotions, more frequent job switching, and a higher likelihood of quitting their current job in the next six months.4 Lonelier employees also tend to perform worse.5 As US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy explains, “At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making. For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.”6

When people feel a sense of community at work, we found that they are 74 percent more engaged and 81 percent more likely to stay with the organization. They report 83 percent higher thriving at work and having an internal sense of being energized, alive, and growing. In another study, Gretchen Spreitzer and I looked across six different organizations from various industries and found that those thriving at work had 16 percent better performance (as reported by their managers).7 They also were far less burned out, so they missed much less work and reported significantly fewer doctor visits, which meant huge healthcare savings and less lost time for the company.

This research is very personal for me. I find myself—and others—surviving or thriving based on feeling a sense of community and belonging. At the extreme, workplaces may feel void of community, and even toxic. Instead of supportive, energizing connections, a workplace might feel draining from de-energizing ties that suck the life and siphon the spirit from us. I vividly recall walking into a hospital room outside of Cleveland to see my strong, athletic dad with electrodes strapped to his bare chest. What put him there? Work-related stress stemming from two toxic bosses.

At the time, I didn’t realize he was inaugurating a family tradition. A couple of years following this medical event, just after I’d graduated from college, I scored what I thought was my dream job, helping a global athletic brand launch a sports academy. Unfortunately, I’d stumbled into an uncivil work culture where bullying, rudeness, and other forms of disrespect ran rampant. Since then I’ve felt both the joy of working in places that embodied community as well as the sheer disappointment and frustration of working in places that lack community. These experiences inspired me to study workplace culture and how leaders might work together to make their people and organizations thrive.

Creating Communities That Thrive

I define a community as a group of individuals who share a mutual concern for one another’s welfare. Teams or tribes tend to refer to smaller communities, and I call the people who bring teams or tribes together to create a larger community of leaders. Communities, teams, and tribes are everywhere—they can exist in families, schools, places of worship, and local municipalities. They often include duties or obligations, and members may share ideas, interests, proximity (remote or not), or any other number of things, but a distinguishing factor is caring for one another. Community, team, and tribe are subjective. They reflect an awareness of the bond existing between people.

Unfortunately, community-rooted organizations like The Mighty remain rare in today’s business landscape. Organizations consistently underestimate the value of community. Alternately, they focus on areas like employee engagement, retention, and purpose instead of on building community first and allowing these other elements to follow. Our need for affiliation, or connection, is one of our three most fundamental needs, along with autonomy and competence. Of these three, connection is arguably the most important.8

I’d like us all to form community-first businesses like Mike’s. To that end, I’ve investigated hundreds of organizations like The Mighty, trying to determine the dynamics underlying successful communities so that we can help create more of them. I’ve interviewed and surveyed hundreds of thousands of people across six continents in nearly every industry and type of organization, including start-ups, Fortune 500 giants, hospitals, nonprofits, schools, universities, sports teams, religious communities, government agencies, and community, industry, leadership, coaching, and student associations. Consulting with scores of diverse communities around the world, I’ve discovered that companies and leaders can best build communities by

  • sharing information,
  • unleashing people,
  • creating a respectful environment,
  • practicing radical candor,
  • providing a sense of meaning, and
  • boosting member well-being.

Part 1 of this book details these characteristics in turn, considering how they each help us build the types of communities that bring out the best in employees. I intend this section as a practical guide for leaders and managers seeking to build thriving workplaces, and for anyone trying to become more effective and influential at work. Just because you’re not leading an organization doesn’t mean you can’t make it better for everyone, including yourself. In fact, my research confirms that community matters, and that your kindness, consideration, and respect can have a potent effect, creating a positive dynamic among your colleagues. Through small actions, you can strengthen your community and lift up your organization.

Part 2 of the book reminds us that we as individuals need to control our contributions, bringing our best selves to our communities. In these chapters, I explore the basics of self-awareness, movement, nutrition, recovery, and mindset. Our muscles are like a pharmacy that pump “hope molecules” into our bodily systems, giving us a potential cure to our loneliness and isolation—but only if we get up and move. While a lack of sleep contributes to poor mental and physical health, it also contributes to loneliness. Sleep deprivation is a strong social repellant, complicating our relationships with others and leading to misunderstandings. Pay attention to your mindset and what you’re feeding yourself—literally and figuratively. The social media, music, and other entertainment we consume affect not only ourselves but also others in our personal and professional communities. What we ingest from these sources, and our social network, affects our mood and mental health, and we pass our anxiety, depression, and stress on to others.9

In effect, your body hosts a dynamic and complex inner tribe, comprising over thirty-seven trillion cells. Ask yourself: Am I and my complex inner ecosystem thriving, or am I merely surviving? Don’t settle for surviving. Start inching yourself toward thriving. A decade’s worth of data, which I’ve accumulated from tens of thousands of employees across diverse industries and roles, suggests that the vast majority of us are merely surviving. Less than 10 percent of us are managing our inner tribe—our body—well, and only 25 percent are in the reasonable range; 40 percent of us are working at a significant deficit, and nearly 25 percent are in full-fledged crisis. All told, that’s 65 percent in the danger zone.

Leaders are most effective when they encourage and model respect and care for an inner tribe. When leaders explicitly encourage employees to work in more sustainable ways and when they themselves model a sustainable way of working, their employees are 55 percent more engaged, 53 percent more focused, and much more likely to stay at the company. By creating a culture in which people can thrive, leaders and managers can help us to enjoy happier, healthier, more fulfilling lives so that we in turn can contribute to and enrich our communities.

Too many people today feel like my brother Mike did—disconnected and suffering. As a society, we’re not fractured, we’re broken. It’s time to get back to basics and prioritize human connection. We’re not meant to be alone. Community helps support people through challenges and make the good times better. I hope the powerful stories and research in this book inspire and empower you to create a thriving tribe of your own. Organizations and their leaders really do have the power to design groups that strengthen connection. These groups in turn bring out the very best in people, enabling them to elevate additional teams and communities. Put this book to use, and you’ll trigger a ripple effect that will benefit not just your own people, but also individuals and organizations across society.

Part 1

Building Communities That Thrive

Chapter 1


You can’t unlock potential if you cannot unlock people.

—Brené Brown

Phil Jackson coached the Chicago Bulls to six National Basketball Association (NBA) championships, and then came close to repeating that record when he coached the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA championships. He was legendary as a coach but also won two NBA championships when he played with the New York Knicks. But what set Jackson apart from his peers was something that went beyond his extraordinary ability and skills, according to Steve Kerr, who was one of his players and who is among the very few who can even come close to Jackson’s record. An eight-time NBA champion, Kerr won three of his titles as the Golden State Warriors’ head coach, and five as a player—three of them with the Chicago Bulls under Coach Jackson. He says that Jackson’s success as a coach had much to do with his ability to make his players feel like they were part of a community—a cohesive, mutually supportive community, a band of brothers that was much more than just a sports team.

When Kerr played with the Chicago Bulls, the players started every day with a meeting in Phil’s team film room (where they would watch video on their team and opposing teams), which was memorably adorned with a wooden arrow, a tobacco pouch, a bear-claw necklace, an owl feather, a painting that depicted the story of Crazy Horse, and some pictures of a white buffalo calf, the most sacred animal in Sioux lore.1 These Native American artifacts were beautiful as decorations, but they were also meant to communicate a message to the players, Kerr explained: “Jackson felt we were a tribe and referred to us as a tribe. That was important to Phil, and he tried to create a sense of a tribe. [Being there] didn’t feel like a team meeting. It felt like a gathering spot. And it started to generate conversation. It wasn’t about establishing fundamentals that we were going to work on for offense or defense. We were just communicating.”2

It was on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, where Jackson and his fellow New York Knicks teammate Bill Bradley had coached a six-year series of basketball clinics, that Jackson was first exposed to Native American tribes and their culture. He was so moved by the Lakota Sioux’s practices that he incorporated their values into his leadership and was eventually named Swift Eagle in an official Lakota ceremony. Jackson marshaled his knowledge of Native American culture to promote the idea that for his players, each season should focus on a sacred quest.3 And just as the Lakota tribe had sacred rites that they practiced, so, too, did the Chicago Bulls. Before every game, they put their hands together for a team chant and invoked their sacred quest—a fourth NBA title was the quest one year.

Central to Jackson’s work with his players was the “sense of camaraderie” he provided, according to B. J. Armstrong, who played six seasons for Jackson. This was as important to them as any of his coaching expertise. As Jackson explained to an interviewer, “What we try to do with our group is breathe together, share the same space, find something outside just playing basketball on the court. This ‘spiritual stuff’ brings an act of community to us.”4 Making sure that everyone on his team felt like they belonged and had a role to play was a critical part of Jackson’s overall strategy, and one reason he placed such emphasis on the triangle offense. This is an offense geared toward thinking and moving in unison. What particularly appealed to Jackson about the triangle offense was that it empowered everyone on the team and demanded that they subordinate individual needs to those of the group. It might have seemed like a surprising choice since Jackson had perhaps the greatest NBA basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, on the team, and most coaches would have designed an offense to key completely off Jordan (as had been the case with the previous coach’s system). But Jackson wanted the Bulls to become less of a one-man team fixated on Jordan, to let the ball flow to other players in order to ensure that each player felt his contributions mattered. When he played for the Bulls, Kerr viewed the triangle offense as “part of a whole philosophy of teamwork and connectivity. And I totally felt it when I was playing there. I never felt more important as a player than I did in Chicago.”5

Jackson developed a culture that demanded and rewarded teamwork, in which everyone felt they were an important part of the team. This applied to the role players, too, those who were not stars or starters. Even those at the very end of the bench were made to feel that they mattered, which encouraged them to remain focused and ready to play anytime they were sent into the game. Player John Salley noted, “On this team you feel like you’re worth something even if you’re the 12th man.”6 It was that feeling of mattering, of belonging, that unlocked everyone’s potential.

Although Jackson’s still-unbeaten record of NBA championships coached clearly demonstrates his commitment to winning, he was also committed to the communal spirit that bound the team together, and he understood that winning wasn’t the only thing that counted. In 1990, one of Jackson’s Chicago Bulls stars, Scottie Pippen, lost his father. Pippen missed a playoff game after the death and was “off” when he returned. Jackson thought it was important for the team to acknowledge Scottie’s loss and support him. With Jackson’s encouragement, players circled Pippen and said a prayer. “Scottie was clearly moved,” Jackson reported, noting that such heartfelt affection was rare in the NBA. Buoyed by his teammates, Pippen lit it up that night, scoring twenty-nine points, with the Bulls finishing off the Philadelphia 76ers to take the playoff series.7

By the final game seven of the next series, however, stress had taken its toll on Pippen. He had a migraine that gave him double vision, and his play suffered. Some in the press blamed Scottie for the team’s heartbreaking defeat, but Jackson, who was certainly as disappointed as anyone, defended Scottie, as did the men on the team, rallying behind him. That spirit of empathy and camaraderie is the seed from which the championship team was born, according to Jackson.8

In one of his books on his coaching experience, Sacred Hoops (a play on words that refers both to the hoops on the court and to the Native American metaphor for the loop of life, the “circle of existing things”),9 Jackson reflects on our society’s focus on “rewarding winners at the perilous expense of forsaking community and compassion.” He wanted to do things differently, he said—to create a supportive environment for players in which everyone had each other’s backs and no one was made to feel that they personally bore the burden of winning. His goal was for the tribe to “heighten the feeling of intimacy, the sense that we were engaged in something sacred and inviolate.”10

To forge that sense of intimacy and trust, Jackson used the players’ daily meeting in the team film room as an opportunity to get them to share their views on topics other than basketball. “Some coaches try to force players to bond with each other by putting them through hellish Marine Corps–style training,” he writes. “That’s a short-term solution, at best. I’ve found that the connection will be deeper and last longer if it’s built on a foundation of genuine exchange.” One of the topics that he focused on for this exchange of views was ethics. Each season, after selecting the twelve-man roster, Jackson would distribute a modern-day reinterpretation of the Ten Commandments and then he’d have one of the players read a section from the book to stimulate team discussion. “Once we had a heated debate about guns after I noticed someone carrying a weapon on the team plane,” Jackson writes. Some of the players felt they needed guns for protection, but he challenged them to think about the danger of pulling a gun in a moment of anger. “The Bulls needed to learn that before something tragic happened.”11

The open dialogue among the players, the willingness to be honest about their thoughts and their feelings, created a deep feeling of trust. “By end of season we had guys crying in front of each other in these meetings,” Kerr said. “We had guys toasting one another. It was such an incredible experience. But he set it up by being vulnerable and showing that vulnerability himself and establishing that culture of communication and trust.”12

All the things that Jackson did to create a supportive community, a tribe, a safe space in which the players felt they could open up and be vulnerable and authentic with each other were critical to the success they enjoyed. And much of what he did to encourage a sense of community is adaptable to all kinds of organizations. In this chapter, I discuss how organizations as diverse as the Chicago Bulls, Cisco, Cleveland Clinic, Spanx, and Google X have created environments that help unlock people’s potential, and how you can do so, too.

Shared Patient Experiences:
A Rocket Ship for Health


On Sale
Mar 8, 2022
Page Count
272 pages

Christine Porath

About the Author

Christine Porath is a tenured professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. She’s the author of Mastering Civility and co-author of The Cost of Bad Behavior. She is also a consultant working with leading organizations to help people and communities thrive. Her speaking and consulting clients include Google, United Nations, World Bank, Microsoft, Genentech, Marriott, 3M, Verizon, Ford, World Health Organization, and Cleveland Clinic.

Learn more about this author