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Community Building

Religion, Politics and the Business of Tribes


People who strongly identify with any clearly defined belief structure, be it religion, politics, company values or even something as diffuse as an alumni association or professional body, are at a unique advantage within those groups when compared to people with no affiliations.

by Jonathan O’Byrne

5 months ago


When I was getting started with Collective Works, I worked with a talented small contractor, who I will call Michelle (not her real name). Michelle was Singaporean, spoke 3 languages, studied in America and had a strong design eye. The reason we got on so well is that we spoke a common design language. She understood little design nuances immediately - things most people overlook - such as why a light switch needs to be moved thirty centimetres to the left to accommodate a door swing or why a bracket needs to be removed and refitted so it can’t be seen from a certain perspective.

After working together on a number of projects and having met her charming American husband, I discovered that she and her husband are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now this isn’t a blog about religion, at least not the way you think its going to be - their faith didn’t faze me, but it was an interesting piece of information for a reason I am about to explain.

Some months later, Michelle brought a good friend of hers to tour Collective Works as a potential office. Unbeknownst to her, I had briefly met this gentleman previously at the launch of the Rolls Royce Wraith months earlier. I knew he was a heavy hitter before she’d given me any background information and I knew he worked in finance. I learned over the course of our conversation that he had worked in a private bank and had left to build a new software platform intended to automated the way hedge funds do business with each other.

Curious about the connection she had with someone who seemed to come from such a different industry, I asked Michelle, ‘How did you get to know such an interesting individual?’

She didn’t miss a beat, ‘We go to the same church.’

It was a short sentence, but it was a complete answer. That short phrase was imbued with so much meaning. It could instantly explain something as complex as why a small interior renovations business owner would know the intricacies of the life and business of a captain of an industry in a completely disparate field.

That is why the fact that she is a Jehovah’s Witness is an interesting piece of information. What I instantly understood was that she was part of a clearly defined tribe, or community.

A community is a group of people who are relevant, proximate, engaged and connected through a common axis. The most important element of a community is the axis; for my contractor and this friend of hers, that axis was their religion.

Being part of the right community leads to increased capabilities and opportunities. Look at the emphasis some of the world’s highest performing companies place on corporate culture and how vigorously they search for employees of the right ‘fit.’

Or look at the spontaneous communities of crowdfunding or mass rallies; when people organise themselves rapidly around a common goal, amazing things can happen at an accelerated pace. Furthermore, the economies and impact they create are beneficial for all involved.

Communities are made up of people who share a personal connection - they can be your friends and the friends of your friends, but they can also be bonded to you in a different way. While there might only be six degrees of separation between you and everyone else on the planet - and we now have LinkedIn to tell us just how you are connected to each person - the first two degrees of separation are the most important. Beyond two connections, the relationship becomes abstract, the friend of a friend of a friend. This means the connection loses credibility. Credible connections form communities, meaning they consist of first, second and occasionally third-degree connections. Anything beyond third-degree connections is just a network.

People who strongly identify with any clearly defined belief structure, be it religion, politics, company values or even something as diffuse as an alumni association or professional body, are at a unique advantage within those groups when compared to people with no affiliations.

I will run with the church metaphor to keep it relevant to the story. If you and I go to the same church it means first and foremost that we have the same belief structure. We are governed by the same rules and code of conduct, we believe in the same outcomes and we have a common perspective on the world.

It also means we share a community. This is quite powerful because you aren’t just known by a random collection of people I also know. You are known by a group of people I actively choose to be a part of, whom I value and who value me. There is implicit acceptance by being part of a strongly-defined community.

Sharing a community also means that it is very easy for me to background check you. Anyone in business can pay for the standard checks: bankruptcy, litigation and director profiles. However, if I am part of the same community I will find out if you cheat on your spouse, if your tax history is slightly grey or if you have a drinking problem. If these conditions have not escalated to the degree where they have a legal or criminal history, I may never hear of them otherwise but they tell me more about your character. By being part of the same community, my respected, qualified peers will give me a very honest assessment of both your personal and professional history.

There is also a second layer of protection to being part of the same community: Because you are known, you are also held immediately accountable. If we go into business together and you misbehave, then I have recourse. Legal action pales in comparison to the social shame (not to mention religious damnation) of cheating your business partner from the same church. The threat of losing your tribe is so powerful it keeps people on their best behaviour. Communities, in essence, are therefore self-governing; they decide if you make the cut.

The catch is that communities must be supported by infrastructure. They need urban planning or some common ground on which to operate. In large corporations, company offices or a corporate campus serve that purpose. In a church, the physical church and events run by the church form that infrastructure. In housing estates, you find co-op boards; in country clubs, you find membership communities. Those who play together, stay together.

In today’s world, we no longer live in small communities. In fact, more and more of us live internationally, thousands of miles away from the places of our birth and from the communities we grew up within. The challenge becomes, in today’s increasingly disparate and mixed up world, how do we find communities that allow us to function as authentically as we did years ago?

The Idea that community could be consciously and carefully built around an axis of values was a critical realisation in my own life.

Having spent my entire life as an expatriate, I have needed to consciously build and rebuild my community numerous times as the countries I lived in changed and the people I knew and loved moved.

The idea of a chosen, intentional community and cognisance that I could use my innate skillset to help others was the impetus behind creating a coworking business. I realised I could build and share a community for those who didn’t have one - those who were aware from home. The power of that creation was bigger than myself or the physical premises my businesses operated.


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