10/05/2012 12:07 EDT | Updated 12/05/2012 05:12 EST

Want Your Employees to Love Work? Create a Community


Since the dawn of time, the importance of a creating a strong collective identity has been understood by empires, religions, tribes, and organizations of all types. In the modern world, it is an invaluable tool for developing a cohesive, progressive and strong corporate organization.

A collective identity is the organizational DNA that gives people a common sense of culture and belonging, and allows them to feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves. It can motivate people to take heroic action despite personal fears and limitations. Collective identity can also be a source of deep satisfaction and provide a sense of belonging.

It's why we see police officers and firefighters travel from across North America to funerals when a fellow officer dies in the line of duty; they feel they have lost one of their own.

It's one of the reasons why we hear so many people say they love their company or profession and talk about it as a lifestyle in which they and their colleagues have their own "language," sharing common expressions and values, and working together to ensure the success of the organization.

Yet, despite the importance of collective identity, many companies are cutting back on the very things that create shared experiences -- such as corporate events and residential programs where employees from across the organization can come together to learn and form a common bond.

Compounding that, in the modern business environment, we are faced with a reality where the proliferation of technology has blurred defined boundaries and thus eroded the idea of corporate loyalty and identity among many young employees. They see less corporate structure, and subsequently feel less connected with their colleagues and employers.

As the next generation moves into the workplace, a generation that is more connected through social media than any other, here are a few tips for corporate leaders to develop and foster a collective identity in their organizations:

1. Create a core narrative: Define what your collective identity is. What are the values that bind you all together? Foster a deep connection between your employees and the company's core values at the creation of the organization by determining your valued past. Where is the organization now and what does it aspire to become? And perhaps as importantly, how is the organization different from others in the industry? What makes you unique?

2. Create rituals, common practices, and common language that people throughout the company can participate in, and events that enable people to have deep, shared experiences. Most importantly, create public "rites of passage" that mark the key transitions people make in their careers, such as moving from individual contributor to first-time manager.

3. Value and elevate your corporate historians. These are the people who know where the organization came from and can pass their knowledge and wisdom on to the next generation. For example, an old table stuck in a hallway at Hay Group's corporate office was about to be tossed. A retiree coming in for an event remarked that was the first board table. It took on a venerated meaning and was placed in a special part of the office where everyone now knew what it represented.

4. Before cutting programs that bring employees together, consider the impact it will have on your corporate identity. For example, General Electric invests heavily in places like Crotenville -- the company's corporate university -- where participants from all over the globe come together for extended residential experiences and form lifelong bonds with their global colleagues.

5. Create mechanisms to enable people who leave the organization to feel they are part of an extended network. Use social media and other technologies to stay connected with those who leave. Some of the best organizations, such as KPMG and BMO, create alumni, ambassador or retiree groups.

History has proven that a strong collective identity is powerful unifying force that has helped people and organizations survive and prosper for millennia. In today's environment, where competition is fierce on every level, it can make a major difference in attracting and retaining the best and brightest employees and improving the bottom line.