Moving beyond rigidity and chaos in communities – some thoughts on integration

One of the keynote talks at the Mindful Leadership Summit that I attended in early November was by neuroscientist Dan Siegel. Siegel is particularly interested in the subject of integration, a topic I’d like to explore a little here.

Integration is a healthy state within a system where there is neither too much rigidity, nor chaos. Take for example a choir (and example Siegel also uses in his books). There may be multiple different voices in the choir, and different notes being sung at any given moment – so there’s differentiation within the group rather than a homogeneous mass of identical components. But the contributions of each member of the group are coordinated – they understand where one note relates to the note that another is singing (rather than rigidly sounding out their own melody in isolation). And so the result is a pleasant song rather than a clashing, dissonant jumble.

Which got me thinking about online communities. In talking with with many folks recently about what they use as the definition of a community, lots of them said some variant of “a group with common interests, or a shared goal”. So is integration within a community when the members feel as though they are aligned with the goals and interests? In this context, rigidity might be opposing one another’s opinions and suggestions or perhaps refusing to evolve with the changing environment in which the community exists (refusing new members, not adopting new tools etc). The opposite of this, chaos, may be a community that has not yet settled on a shared purpose or set of interests and perhaps is trying to cover too many topics, or not sharing information about activities in a way that members feel they are able to understand and participate consistently.

To what extent does a community manager play the role of “integrator” – helping each individual to make sense of the overall community, perhaps like a choirmaster or a conductor might do in a musical context? And to what extent do other members take on this role? How do the technical features of the online community promote or inhibit integration – for example, if a newsfeed algorithm is showing different activities to different members of a community, do they end up with such contrasting perspectives about the community that that don’t feel integrated with it?

I’d be curious to hear how you’ve handled this in the communities that you belong to and work with. How do you enable individuals to feel differentiated (and valuable in their own right) while also being aware of others around them and striving to interact with others in a meaningful way?