Together Institute
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Together Institute

Applying force in community doesn’t work

And what is leadership without force?

Photo by R.D. Smith

The other day I was talking to a community member who wanted to leave a group I co-host. I tried my best at convincing her that she should stay. I told her all the reasons why I think she could benefit from staying. I tried to understand her doubts and tried to address them. We left the call with no clear outcome in mind, but overall I sensed that she had made up her mind and would leave anyways. And, I wondered: had I just tried to force her to stay?

Subtle forms of force

It seems obvious that force — making someone do something against their will — is a counterproductive approach in community weaving. While most community weavers aren’t trying to twist anyone’s arm, I find that subtle forms of force show up quite regularly. For example:

  • Persuasion: we’re trying to talk someone into taking a bigger role, taking on responsibility. Or we’re trying to talk them out of disengaging. “Come on, we need you!”
  • Emotional force, for example in the form of guilt and shame. “We wish we’d be seeing you more often”, “we miss you so much, it’s sad you’re never with us”, “I’d like you to take the lead on this, can I count on you?”
  • Bribes: “Hey I’ll give you 20% off your ticket if you come and join us for that gathering”. “Here is a learning grant to do something with others in the network”

Often the use of force is well intended and hard to distinguish from more positive qualities. Where exactly is the line between persuasion and encouragement? I sense the difference lies in our attitude towards the person we’re talking to. Are we trying to help them clarify their own reasoning or are we trying to push them towards our desired outcome?

We live in a world of relationships defined by domination

It’s not surprising that force creeps into our community behaviors. After all we operate in a society where the use of (subtle and not so subtle) force is quite prevalent and accepted, where many relationships are defined by domination, not partnership.

We spend much of our time in the professional context where people make you do things. Often in our professional environment we don’t choose whom to work with or what our priorities are. At school we learn to obey authority. Many of our leadership role models are based on command and control.

Why does force not work in community?

In contrast to many professional environments, healthy communities are environments where people show up by their own choice. They are there truly as free agents. When we use force, we not only ignore the reality that people can simply walk away, but we violate their sovereignty. We treat them not as peers and co-creators, but as consumers (or worse).

This leaves me with an open inquiry: What is community leadership if you can’t use force? How is strength different from force? I’m curious what you all think!

Related:

Thank you

Thank you to my collaborator Erin Dixon for inspiring me to think about the sovereignty of people in community and paying attention to when that sovereignty is violated.

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Fabian Pfortmüller

Fabian Pfortmüller

Grüezi, Swiss community weaver in Amsterdam, co-founder Together Institute, co-author Community Canvas, fabian@together-institute.org | together-institute.org