Traditionally, communities were formed along geographic lines. Our initial tribal connections were small in number — in the hundreds, not the thousands or millions. Indeed, the entire global population 2,000 years ago was more akin to that of a small- to mid-sized nation by today’s standards.
They also typically lived in close communities, or at least within a day’s walking distance of each other. In other words, communities and cultures were defined primarily by population and proximity.
As the human population increased and societies became more complicated, interconnected and specialized in nature, city, states and nations formed along demographic lines. Communities and cultures were more defined by characteristics such as a shared language, common belief systems, easily recognized and understood iconography, and social structures.
This type of demographic community and culture has informed most of our modern history for the past few thousand years.
Today, however, the way we form communities and cultures has shifted fundamentally — from that of geographic and demographic to one of psychographic identity. In other words, communities and cultures are now formed along shared values rather than a common location or culture.
This shift brings with it significant opportunities and challenges.
What we once thought of our community and culture — things like our nationality or cultural identity — may no longer fit so comfortably. In fact, we might find greater acceptance for who we are beyond the bounds of traditional community or culture.
What Does This Mean From a Commercial Point of View?
A few years ago, my business partner Kieran Flanagan and I spoke at a conference for entrepreneurs in Perth, Western Australia. During the lunch break, two young ladies came up to us and handed us their business cards. They were clearly young, so we asked them to tell us about their businesses, but first inquired as to how old they were.
The youngest responded, “I have an illustration and graphics business where I do designs and graphics for people’s websites and I sell it to people around the world … and I’m 12 years of age.” Her sister added, “I have two businesses. One is an online publishing business where I identify young authors and edit and publish their content on my platform. The second is a fashion business where I find clothes from around the world that make girls feel good about their bodies, and I sell them through my website to young women all around the world. And I’m 14.”
Twelve and 14, and doing international commerce with customers all around the world from the most remote capital city in the most remote country in the world using technology that didn’t exist at the time of their birth!
It is this same technology and social media that has created the environment for this sociological shift. We are now intimately and instantly connected to people who share our point of view and values in a way that was impossible just half a generation ago.
This has allowed for new communities and cultures to form, but it also has undermined our existing definitions of “us” and “them.” If you consider the increasing political and social polarization we are experiencing all around the world, those who might share our geography and even demography can increasingly be seen as enemies, not allies or kin, and you begin to understand the seismic nature of this shift.
Yes, there are some significant commercial opportunities, but with them come some equally critical challenges to things like the notion of nationality, patriotic allegiance, moral obligation, national defense and, of course, leadership.
In a world where we no longer need to find a middle ground with those around us and where we can instead replace them with people whose only connection to us is one of shared values and beliefs, we need to adapt our behavior and communication to this new definition of community and culture or else risk increasing polarization and instability.
What Does This Mean for Leaders and Communicators?
First, we need to stop thinking exclusively in terms of geography and demographics and learn how to build psychographic cultures and communities — both inside our organizations and also in the marketplace and within our broader, more “distantly connected” communities.
This will only become more critical as the recent COVID pandemic has forced workplaces into hybrid practices that have been technologically viable in the past, such as remote working and team-splitting, but resisted out of habit and inertia.
From a communications point of view, it means we will need to embrace diversity as more than a corporate social responsibility exercise and accept that we will be communicating across borders, language barriers and cultural practices as we unite our teams, cultures and broader communities along values lines.
Values are no longer something we hang on a plaque in the boardroom, they are the things that define our new identities.
If cultures and communities are simply agreed-upon morals, ethics and values codified in exemplar stories (and they are), it will be the communicators who help these communities to become tangible and powerful.
The co-founder of The Behaviour Report, Dan Gregory helps leaders and teams explore critical behavioral insights in search of opportunities, identify the meaning behind the data and turn information into actionable strategies through keynote presentations, webinars, training, facilitation and strategic consulting.
Rated in “the top 25 C-suite speakers to watch” by Meetings & Conventions USA, Gregory is a captivating speaker whose business acumen is matched by a rapier wit and rare human insight gained during three years on the road working on the U.S. and U.K. stand-up comedy circuits — skills put to great use in front of millions of viewers as a regular on ABC TV’s “Gruen Planet” and Channel 7’s “Masters of Spin.”
He has created leadership strategies for global technology firms, designed performance strategies for C-suite executives and driven engagement strategies for organizations as diverse as Coca-Cola, Unilever, the Royal Australian Navy and the UN/UN Women in Asia.
Gregory takes the academic worlds of philosophy, psychology and sociology and translates them into the commercial and social applications of beliefs, behaviors and belonging.
He is the co-author of four books and the co-host of a show called “Brandin’” (a co-produced with LinkedIn and Mi-3) and “The Behaviour Report.”
Ultimately, Gregory helps smart people to be "people smart" and shares insights to help them increase their influence, impact and income. Find him on social media at @DanGregoryCo.