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Moving from Toxic Bosses to Thriving Communities

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

The Struggle with Toxic Workplaces Christine Porath grew up watching her dad struggle with toxic bosses. She saw the toll these taxing relationships took on his health and how it colored his life when he came home as well. Now a professor of management at Georgetown, Porath has devoted her career to discovering ways we can make work better, which only makes sense “given how much time and energy people spend in the workplace.” She recently spoke about her work and latest book, Mastering Community, in a conversation with Gretchen Spreitzer in the Positive Links series at the Center for Positive Organizations.

The average person spends 90,000 hours of their life working. But somehow, these hours are often devoid of a strong sense of community. In a study she conducted with Tony Schwartz, the CEO of The Energy Project, Porath found that over 65% of people felt no sense of community at work — and this is pre-pandemic, with the lack of community only getting worse. Even with people being back in the office and physically working next to each other, that doesn’t necessarily translate to feeling connected to each other. Instead, workers are faced with dealing with issues like isolation and loneliness alone.

What is Community?

Being part of a community takes more than just sitting side by side or working for the same company. So what do you need in order to form a community? Porath proposes that a community is “a group of individuals who share a concern for each other’s welfare,” which can happen with families, local communities, faith groups, and organizations. Being in a community requires caring for the other people and trusting that they care for you as well. 

Work being a place of community isn’t just a nice-to-have, though. We languish when we face isolation and loneliness, and our confidence drops. But when we’re part of a community, that pushes us more towards the thriving end of the spectrum, where we are constantly moving forwards, growing, and learning. And opposite to what Porath witnessed with her dad, thriving in and out of work creates an ampliative cycle because thriving in the workplace is positively correlated with thriving outside of the workplace. Instead of toxic workplaces draining you, a thriving workplace can buoy your energy and sense of purpose, building your internal resources to be able to pursue what fills you up outside of work as well. And if you’re thriving outside of work too, then you bring to the office “a stronger, more resilient self that tends to perform better, that’s healthier, more focused, more likely to stay.”

5 Positive Practices to Build Community

So how can we go about building community in our workplaces? Virtual or in-person, the biggest goal is to create shared experiences. Porath and Spreitzer offered some ideas on how we can do that:

  1. Hobby Workshops — People often find purpose and meaning through teaching. Teams can tap into that by creating a space for people to take turns teaching each other about the things they’re passionate about, whether that be knitting or butchering or gardening. 

  2. Group Fitness Challenges — Fitness challenges foster both community and accountability. Plus, working on your physical wellbeing together can have lots of positive spillover into other areas of wellbeing.

  3. Book Clubs — A hallmark of community activities, book clubs offer the opportunity to learn together. You could also expand your idea of a book club and branch out into movies or podcasts!

  4. Walking Meetings — Everyone has meetings, so why not make some of them walking meetings? Spreitzer loves this practice because of simple it is to make a small change to something she already does every day. She finds walking meetings especially powerful when she has to have difficult conversations because it cultivates a feeling of moving forward together.

  5. Love and Loathe — A quick weekly pulse, Love and Loathe helps managers get feedback often so they can support their people in a meaningful way. Porath gave the example of when an executive reported having a heavy week, and the CEO scheduled a one-on-one first thing Monday morning in order to support her. That executive then shared her experience and modeled the same level of care with those that she supported. 

Spirit of Experimentation

When it comes to how leaders approach building community, Spreitzer suggested thinking of it as an opportunity to infuse workplaces with lightness and fun, different from the demands of the job. She shared that sometimes, as a leader, she feels she has to figure it all out by herself, but when it comes to fostering connections, sometimes leaders aren’t the best at figuring out what would be fun for their people or what would be a shared experience to elevate the group. Instead, leaders should shift from wondering how to get their people to connect to asking themselves what they can do to help their people pursue their values together and unleash community building. 

One of the best ways to engage people is to embrace a spirit of experimentation and play — try things out and create small wins. You don’t have to have a lot of power or status to do this transformative work. Starting a book club, for example, wouldn’t require any formal authority in an organization. Importantly, though, these experiments in community should be voluntary to avoid the activities feeling like simply another task to add to your workload. But if you can get some people on board, trying these positive practices at small or large scales, you’ll see a great return on investment in terms of how people are thriving in and out of work. When people are thriving, they bring more positive energy to the organization, which reinforces the positive practices and builds a bigger and stronger sense of community.

In our work here at Riverbank, we strive to support organizations in creating more positive cultures. We bring our research-backed knowledge of positive practices to guide leaders as they experiment to see what works best for their teams. By resourcing the organizations we work with, we’re helping work become more enjoyable, fulfilling, and productive.

Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing.


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