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  • Writer's pictureJosh Simons

Restorative Lenses: Lessons from Community Management

A wooden gavel on a white background

Recently, I rewrote our moderator guidelines at the company where I work. In particular, I focused on policies around disciplinary actions, and while working through that document it occurred to me that while there are many examples online of what a good code of conduct or a good set of rules look like, there are very few readily available examples of what community builders should do or think about when trying to correct behavior within their communities.

In my mind, one of the chief objectives that I have as a community manager is to build a space where people want to spend their time, and to make it a place where everyone can feel valued and welcome.

There are several different things to keep in mind when thinking about what I will refer to here as ‘restorative justice.’ The goal of which is to help coach someone back into the community after breaking a rule or being removed for bad behavior. Rather than discuss specific actions, I hope to share some of the philosophies and ways of thinking that I find helpful, as a resource to others who might be looking to reevaluate the ways they handle discipline and rule enforcement in their spaces.

A term I will use frequently in the following discussion is ‘lens’ and what I mean by that is “a way of viewing things from a specific viewpoint that informs how you understand what you see.” To start, I want to talk about restorative lenses, which are the different ways you can view a person’s actions when they need to be restored to community with others. There are three primary lenses which I aim to use together to determine how best to handle a situation.

1. What the rule dictates. This may seem obvious, but there have been many times where I’ve seen someone complain about a person’s behavior in a shared group, only to go and check the rules and find that the issue being raised is never mentioned. If there isn’t a rule or guideline that addresses an issue you’re having, you should stop and determine what that rule should be. This way, you have something in writing that you can point to when you need to take corrective action in the future, and you can use this as an opportunity to update your rules in the moment.

The lens for evaluating problematic behavior is straightforward: Has a rule been broken? The answer is either yes or no. If it’s unclear whether or not someone’s behavior is breaking the rule or guideline in question, this means either your rule is unclear or their actions have not clearly crossed the line, and you need to have a more nuanced conversation about the spirit of the rules.

2. Intentionality. What was the individual’s intention when they violated the rule? Was it an accident? Mistakes happen, and can factor into how harsh a punishment might need to be if there was no ill intent. If this is a first offense, a warning may only be necessary.

3. Teachability. Do you believe that this person can learn or be taught to not do the same thing again? This may be somewhat subjective, but if you confront someone and they are immediately apologetic and understanding of where they messed up, it is likely that they can learn. If they are immediately defensive and don’t seem to understand that what they did was wrong, then it may not be worth the effort to try and change their mind on the matter.

When viewed together, it’s easier to determine how best to handle a situation. For instance, if someone intentionally does something harmful, the disciplinary action needs to address the willful choice to cross a boundary. Even for a minor infraction, if the action was deliberate, you might consider a more serious form of punishment. However, if you don’t believe someone broke a rule intentionally and know that they’re receptive to correction, you may give a lighter punishment as a sign of your trust that they won’t do it again.

At this point, I imagine some readers might be wondering, “Josh, why are you reinventing the wheel here? This is overly complicated. If someone breaks a rule, you should just remove them, and most people know that intuitively without all of this lens nonsense.” That’s a fair point. However, when I think about my goal as a community manager, it includes the need to recognize that people can make mistakes. I don’t want to rule with an iron fist and I don’t want community members to fear making a mistake.

At the end of the day, I’m talking about philosophies and suggestions because I think it may be helpful to some community builders out there, but there will likely be many folks that find what I’m saying here to be redundant or self-explanatory.

To be clear, I think you should have clearly stated rules and enforce them. But the purpose of those rules shouldn’t be to remove anyone who breaks them. The purpose of those rules is to provide a playground where people can have fun and be themselves within those clear boundaries. Knowing what is off-limits often makes it easier for people to feel comfortable fully exploring everything that is inside the limits, and in this line of work, that’s exactly what you want to happen.

I hope this is helpful to anyone out there interested in building their own community or who has found themselves in a community manager-type position with no idea what to do.

Are there other lenses you like to use? Think I missed the mark? Let me know!

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