Dark Side of Community Management

15 May

tumblr_m2bmhfDXGr1rtcvico1_400This post is a love letter to my fellow community managers, as well as a brass-tacks discussion on the practice of community management – the dark and the light side of it. It is also a call to action for community managers to take a proactive stand against burnout — while working all the time may seem like the right thing to do for our communities in the short term, burnout renders us useless to these same communities.

We let our passion consume us. Don’t.

They say that community managers are CEOs in training, and I think that’s partly because of how truly cross-functional we are, but it’s also because of the passion we carry for our communities. Personally, in order to be effective, I can only work for communities I believe in, and must be passionate about the product and the company’s mission.

For most, community management is more than a job. I’ve had to actively give myself permission to disconnect – physically and mentally. Truly disconnecting has been a challenge — even if I’m not working, I’m still thinking about it.

I didn’t realize how thin the line between passion and obsession really is until John Hagel helped me shape my thinking. Passion is your guiding light, your life’s purpose that helps you run a marathon – it’s sustained action over an extended period of time that helps you reach your goal. Passion is your moral compass in times of adversity. It helps you get things done by pulling other passionate people and resources towards you. Obsession is an unhealthy fixation, at the expense of other things in your life — most often overcompensation for a shortcoming. Obsession burns you out; you can’t run a marathon at the speed of a sprint. At times, I’ve let my passion consume me and become obsession, but I’ve gotten better at recognizing this pattern and controlling my thoughts and actions.

There’s been some discussion — not nearly enough — about the mental tax that founders feel and how it leads to mental problems. I think community managers aren’t far behind. The highs are exhilarating, and the lows are soul-crushing. If we, as community managers, can master living and breathing our passions, without letting them consume us, we will be able to run our life marathons and change the world as a result.

We internalize. Don’t.

A community manager is everyone’s support and advocate – advocating simultaneously for the customer and the company. In times of conflict  – for example, when customers aren’t too thrilled about a product release that’s important to the company — we are the ones caught in the cross-hairs. As the first line of defense on both sides, we deal with every conflict and fallout and are the peacemaker and a problem solver — everyone is looking to us for answers.

In the inevitable times of conflict or disagreement (there will always be conflict) our job is to calm others down while they fall apart. We have to do so without internalizing it – much like professional counselors. Not only is the conflict itself taxing, but even more so is the pressure of everyone depending on you. The solution is not to internalize conflict and to look for support from across the organization in helping you shoulder some of the burden. For example, if you know a certain feature will be contentious, make sure you understand it well, and rally your product people to be on standby with you during a critical time.

We are problem solvers. Give people space.

By being the first line of defense, we amass a huge amount of institutional knowledge. We are exposed to an incredible amount of information and know how the organization runs from just about every angle. We also know just about everyone: we know key community champions and customers, product, marketing, support and customer facing organizations, and the executive suite. Because we understand patterns and behaviors, as well as members’ interests and values, we can often predict a reaction to just about any stimulus.

Because of this, everyone looks to us for answers, and this can quickly spin out of control. Here’s another novel idea that can set you free: we don’t need to have all the answers; it’s actually better when we don’t. Because we tend to be people-pleasers who love to help, our first instinct is to answer questions head on. We must consciously fight this; avoid speaking for everyone and allow (better yet, encourage) people with authority and expertise to take the spotlight. It’s much more meaningful when a customer can answer a best practices question for another customer — but it’s still on you to ensure this happens, and over time create the conditions where this happens naturally. It’s also much more meaningful when your product team can share the product vision, roadmap and answer questions – they have the authority on the subject; you don’t. Of course, it’s incumbent on you to orchestrate this.

We keep trying to scale ourselves. Stop trying to scale people, and scale systems.

Remember: you don’t scale, and just because your community is global, doesn’t mean that you need to be online all day and all night, forsaking sleep and vacation. Trust me, a burned out community manager is pretty useless, so drop the heroics. Your job as a community manager is not to scale yourself, but to create human systems that scale infinitely. Recruit, groom and empower your community’s ambassadors — from all over the world — and relegate control to them. Work with them, nurture them, reward them in the way that they want to be rewarded, and pay it forward.

Stop trying to be the middle-man and let other employees engage directly with customers. Partner with other parts of the organization and have a killer process — it’s always more authentic if various teams at your company can speak directly about their expertise areas. If you tap into your members’ (employees and customers) intrinsic motivations and design the community to self-sustain, you will scale infinitely. The true test of your community is whether or not you can take a vacation and not be worried about shit blowing up.

We are change agents. Drop the savior complex.

Because of how deeply involved we are with everything, we see everything that’s right and wrong. It can be jarring and unsettling. Because we are fixers, our instinct is to try to fix everything – oftentimes things that fall outside of our purview. We must fight this instinct — just because we informally influence things doesn’t always mean we are empowered to change how the company works.

We need to shed our idealism and be realistic about things we can change and influence — and how long it may take. Be realistic about the culture you have, pick your battles and understand internal politics. Having a lot of informal influence may lull us into a false sense of security and invincibility. Introduce change gradually, pick your battles and be sensitive to others – you will create a lot more change if you are thoughtful about how you influence and how you introduce change. This is difficult, especially for ambitious individuals like myself – but I’m learning!

We celebrate others. Toot your own horn.

Paradoxically, even though we do so much and get involved in so many things, a lot of times people don’t know exactly what we do or what success takes. Our jobs don’t fit into neat boxes like other jobs do, and are oftentimes are hard to quantify — because communities tend to have fuzzier ROI, and because our role as the connective tissue is oftentimes felt, but not seen.

It’s also because good community managers celebrate others, and not themselves. Because of this, we oftentimes don’t get credit for things we do. Our job is to create an environment that self-sustains and thus work ourselves out of a job — people just assume the community works by itself. In fact, all communities that seem to work effortlessly are this way because of the work of a community manager; the community manager is the magical unicorn that spreads pixie dust. When everything goes well, no one notices, and it’s only known how much you’ve really done when you’re gone — community manager attrition causes disproportionate damage, due to loss of relationships and tacit and operational knowledge.

How can we make sure that people know what we do? Talk about it; let people know what you’re working on and share successes. While you need to celebrate and uplift others, but you also need to drum your own drum. Otherwise, you won’t get the respect, or the political or financial capital, which in turn helps you make the community more awesome. So step up, step out of the shadows and take what’s yours.

This can be a lonely job. Develop a support system.

When people have problems, they go to the community manager. But where does the community manager go? To other community managers, of course! I am extremely lucky to be part of a few communities of practice (such as the Community Roundtable and many others) and have a very strong network of like-minded individuals whom I trust endlessly. We are very tightly knit; we are there to catch each other when chips fall, we laugh and cry together, we hire each other, we bleed our love of community.

Stop putting on a brave face and ask for help — it doesn’t make you incompetent; rather, it makes you thoughtful and a leader. Be intellectually honest with yourself and others, and push them to do the same. Share your trials and tribulations with other practitioners, but be careful to not indulge in a toxic bitch-fest.

Where do we go next?

Awareness is the first step. If any of the above describes you, leave a note in this blogpost or join the conversation on Twitter with #CMDarkSide hashtag– let’s find a solution together. Off the top of my head, peer support is probably the most important thing we should all invest in. There are tons of communities and unconferences for our kind — in fact, I’m helping out with Online Community Conference 2013 next week – you should join!

I first had an idea for this post months ago, and to calibrate my thoughts, I posted in the Community Roundtable community. It’s been heartening to see that I’m not alone. In fact, there was so much response, that we collaborated on this e-book about “The Dark Side” — check it out here:

To sum up, here are things you can do today. They aren’t always easy, but you need to shift your thinking:

  • Give yourself permission to step away. It’s more than just work-life balance — it’s a necessity. If you don’t do it for yourself or your family, do it for the community. If you burn out, you will be useless to them.
  • Celebrate yourself. Let your company know how important you are. Stop wallowing in how little appreciation you feel, and go get what’s yours. Find internal champions and executive sponsors.
  • Ask for help. Build relationships with other community managers and join existing groups. Complement digital groups with in-person support – start a Meetup if you need to. Go deep; don’t just skirt over issues. Make sure you have your safe space.
  • Admit that you don’t know the answers. Remain curious and work with your community to solve problems – but don’t do it for them. They will appreciate it, and it’s very freeing for you.
  • Learn the difference between obsession and passion. The line is yours to toe, and you have to know where it is.

Photo credit: Dark Jedi Tumblr 

  • http://twitter.com/vargasl Lauren Vargas

    Thank you for being one of the few to address this topic head-on. You are right. We cannot always be the hero or the savior…or even the martyr of our cause. I am constantly battling my Ego and these archetypes on a daily basis. We need to talk about these issues, not just amongst our community manager peers, but with our broader teams and executives. It is important they understand the anatomy of the community and what / who makes the heart of the community tick.

  • http://twitter.com/lacouvee Janis La Couvée

    Maria your comments are very applicable to face-to-face communities too, not just online business communities. In order to be effective long-term, community activists benefit from stepping back, and pausing. Thanks for the reminders.

  • http://twitter.com/susie_parker Susie Erjavec Parker

    This is a great article. I found myself nodding a lot. I struggle to disconnect too. And I feel the weight of responsibility even when I’m not “on” but I am thinking about it. I will be sharing this one.

  • Cliff Figallo

    As one of the earliest community managers to experience these soul-crushing effects, I appreciate your recommendations. At that pre-Web time I could only look forward to the annual meetings of the Electronic Networking Association (ENA) where the small group of working community managers were able to commiserate for a couple days before heading back into the fray. We had great and outlandish hopes for some kind of virtual world-saving breakthrough, but the social pressures finally broke me down after 6 years managing the WELL. It’s good to have maintain relations with your fellow CMs and to provide mutual support for one another. Thanks for the clear advice, Maria.

  • http://twitter.com/catykobe Caty Kobe

    Fantastic article, Maria! You’ve said everything that I’ve been thinking/ trying to accomplish/ struggling to explain and I am so grateful for that. My resolution this year was to be better at “turning off” on a day to day basis, and I 100% turned off for 2 weeks in April when I went on a vacation. Because of that I’ve felt more enlightened, creative, excited, and, well, alive, than I have in a long time. Finally, I’m less interested in having the answer and more interested in rallying others around trying to find the answer. I really appreciate and look up to your leadership as I work to shape my career in community. Thank you!

  • 4eenie


    Thank you so much for articulating the challenges we community managers face, both externally and within ourselves! This article speaks so well to those of us who want/need to save the day by any means necessary. I will try my best to take off my (metaphorical) mom apron, saintly halo, and superhero cape so that I can manage my community well and healthily. Thanks again!

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.lowell Steven Lowell

    This describes me exactly, and I would go so far to say, I wish I had seen this last year. Thanks for this blog post. Very helpful.

  • YuliyaPatsay

    Direct quote from my husband ‘You need to read this post every single day before you start work’

  • Jackie Rose

    Just back from vacation and read this – how true all this is Maria, it’s as if you were sitting on my shoulder in my last role!
    I’d echo Janis’ comment – absolutely applicable to in person communities which seem to be increasingly overlooked and are complimentary to any online activity.
    Being a successful community manager is somewhat like being a graceful bird gliding along the water – no-one sees all the activity beneath the surface!
    Excellent article Maria, I’ll be sure to visit your blog again.

  • http://ItsDifferent4girls.com/my-links Linda Sherman

    Excellent article Maria. Bookmarked for students and clients.

  • http://www.coralgableslocksmiths.com/ Coral Gables Locksmiths

    Like many of you, I’ve encountered challenges along the way, ranging from lack of executive support, to lack of funding and organizational respect, to managing fears and resetting expectation that passionate and open discourse is actually good for us as a business.

  • Stephen Fell

    Great read, kept thinking “I do that” it’s very true what you say about passion vs obsession, really does overtake your life. Also agree that you have to truly love and have passion for the community,brand and mission to truly achieve greatness. Thanks again for sharing :)