How To Thrive With Your Community

Eight Principles For Building Stronger Groups

Humans are social animals, and we need our communities to thrive. Whether it’s our family, friends, coworkers, or even just fellow citizens, our well-being is inherently connected to the well-being of those around us. When we get along, we share resources, knowledge, and companionship, helping us to navigate life’s inevitable challenges. And yet, it’s not always that easy. Because regardless of how strong our bonds may be, we still face conflicts, disagreements, and sometimes even outright hostility. It’s like we are in a constant tug-of-war between our own interests and those of others, that neither side can ever really win.

If we insist on everything going our way, we become selfish, alienate the people in our lives, and are likely to be ignored (or even abandoned). If, however, we constantly submit to the pressure from others, we lose our individuality, forego what we actually want, and end up resenting those whose needs are being fulfilled. Neither scenario is desirable. And in one form or another, we face almost countless versions of these conflicts each and every day.

  • Do we drive the kids to school? Or do we let them walk?
  • Do we shovel the snow in our street? Or do we leave this task for the neighbors?
  • Do we focus while at work? Or do we spend our time procrastinating?
  • Do we recycle? Or do we throw it all in just one bin labeled “trash”?
  • Do we pay our full taxes? Or do we take advantage of, uh, “loopholes”?
  • …etc.

There are many ways in which our own needs can clash with the needs of other people (or with the group at large). If we want to thrive, we have to account not only for what we ourselves selfishly want, but also for the interests of other people and of our community. But how can we maintain that balance? How can we ensure that we tend to our own needs, while not infringing on those around us? How can we thrive – not just individually, but collectively?

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American economist and Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom identified eight “design principles” to effectively manage group resources and development. Paul Atkins, David Sloan Wilson, and I (with Ostrom’s early help, before her untimely death) used them to create an intervention that can help you and the groups you are part of thrive (which we discuss in more detail in our book Prosocial and you can find more free resources at prosocial.world). Without further ado, here they are:

Principle #1 Shared Identity and Purpose

The first principle is to share a common ground with the people in your group. We naturally do this in superficial ways with our families by last names, or with favorite sports teams by wearing logos and colors, but in a deeper way we do it by shared values. Helping those in voluntary groups you are part of to know and express how their chosen purposes are reflected in the group and its activities is a powerful step toward group cooperation.

Principle #2 Balancing Benefits and Contributions

Have you ever belonged to a group where some members were treated unfairly, or where leaders got all the goodies but everyone else did all the work? If so, you know how toxic this can be for everyone involved. The second principle is to care about equity – to ensure that people in your group benefit in a balanced way linked to their contributions. If you are a group leader, for example, setting that example will help the group work well together. Which brings me to my next point…

Principle #3 Fair and Inclusive Decision Making

The third principle is to give people a voice in how decisions are made. By doing so, people are more motivated to make an effort, less stressed in the process, and happier with the final result. For instance, in a classroom, teachers should give their students a say in the learning process by involving them in setting goals, objectives, and rules.

Principle #4 Monitoring Agreed Behaviors

No rules or guidelines can benefit anyone if they are not followed. For this matter, the fourth rule is to monitor agreed upon behaviors. People act more prosocially when they know others are watching – partially because they care about their own reputation. Be aware, however, that monitoring doesn’t become excessive, or used to force people into action. No one likes living under a microscope.

Principle #5 Graduated Responding to Behavior

When people overstep, it’s important to address the situation, but in an adjusted way. For instance, when someone has a habit of missing deadlines, you may want to start with a one-on-one conversation before considering more drastic measures. Similarly, when someone goes above and beyond their own responsibilities, they deserve to get recognized accordingly.  

Principle #6 Fast and Fair Conflict Resolution

We can’t avoid conflict, as anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows. But when we ignore or delay it for too long, it can make the situation worse. If we want to do well with our group, we need to be able to talk about difficult things, and we need to do it whenever it’s necessary. The sixth principle is to find fast and fair conflict resolutions.

Principle #7 Authority to Self-Govern

The authority to self-govern is about a group’s ability to manage its own affairs without outside interference. This principle is similar to principle three (on fair and inclusive decision making), but at the group level. Rather than the freedom of the individual, this is about the freedom of the group. If, for example, you want to create a cooperative business or association, try to empower committees or workgroups, without micromanaging.

Principle #8 Collaboration with Other Groups

The last principle is about recognizing that no group is a universe unto itself, alone and cutoff. Groups need to operate within a larger community of other groups. To function effectively, we must consider the interests of other groups and work together in a collaborative way. Couples do better when they know how to get along with other couples; businesses that can cooperate with other businesses are more likely to succeed.

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In order to thrive we need to learn to balance our own needs with the needs of others. This can be a constant tug-of-war, but Ostrom’s eight principles can help. She won that Nobel for a reason! In the groups you are part of guild them toward strengthening their common purpose and shared values, distributing resources equitably, making decisions together, noting when agreements are kept or violated, addressing conflicts quickly and fairly, respecting the authority of the group, and collaborating with other groups. By following these principles, we can help create a world where everyone benefits and everyone thrives. Together.

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