One of the few aspects of forum management that many admins take for granted is in fact the most important aspect of community administration - leadership. A lot of community administrators take for granted the fact that their admin status somehow bestows upon them an aura which puts them in a position of respect from where the members would follow them unquestioningly.
While it's one thing having the power of administration, it's completely a different story as to how your power actually influences community behaviour. Because no forum software gives you a way to control behaviour on your forum. Sure you can edit, delete, move, lock and such, but ultimately are you using those powers more as a way to clean the mess left behind by disgruntled members or are you able to affect your community by the way you conduct yoursel? I think this is very important. Certainly I'm not advocating that a community leader doesn't need the control. Certainly he does. But it does not automatically follow that those who wield this power will gain the trust and respect of your community members.
So how then do you influence community behaviour? I'll try and share a few thoughts on this.
Choose your staff team carefully
Choosing the right team is one of the most difficult aspects of community administration. It doesn't help if you appoint the first ten members of your newborn community as moderators. It's hard enough to judge people over a period of time, but it can be near impossible to pick the best members by choosing a moderation team when you don't need one.
Here are some qualities of ideal staff members:
Stick to a small team initially. Try and pick people who are on the same wavelength as you are. This can either be easy or difficult based on how well you can judge people. But most people who've been online for a while have an instinct about the right people. You can develop this by observing how people post on your forum.
- Won't "flip-flop" on issues. People who stay relatively neutral when controversial topics are discussed or stay away from them.
- Won't take themselves too seriously and are able to exhibit a sense of humour.
- Are emotionally stable and secure. Believe me, I can judge how moods can affect posting behaviour over a period of time. Observation is a very good guide to judge this.
I won't go into how you pick the right moderators. A lot of it is gut feel and instinct. And that's a topic by itself. But community behaviour is highly sensitive to the kind of staff you pick. If you pick people who're on the same wavelength as you are and able to tune into your community's specific issues, that's ideal. A small team will be much easier to manage as well.
Stay unemotional but responsive under stress
There's nothing worse than seeing an admin heatedly admonish a member in public. Whatever be the issue, when an admin does this and displays frustration, anger, stress or other signs of weakness, members will immediately pick on you and start controlling and manipulating you through emotional blackmail.
Stay polite, but firm. Stay impersonal. If a specific issue is so heated that it requires intervention, stay cool and respond in a neutral tone. Above all, never condemn staff actions even when you see them to be wrong. Resolve it through private communication and keep the forum free of personal issues. You will gain immense respect if you don't show favouritism and stay calm and neutral.
Setting the tone - the trickle down effect
An admin who is cheerful, enthusiastic and polite will create a wonderful community of cheerful, enthusiastic people. Admins who are weak will draw people who will dominate the forum. Admins who get emotional will attract emotional people. Believe me, this is true. The trickle down effect is in effect. The mood of the leader can affect the mood of the whole community - unless your community is so huge that it's outgrown you. Even so, the subtle influence of your behaviour will affect your community.
Always project yourself in the right way as an administrator. People will naturally get attracted to positve qualities.
Stay connected and informed
It's important that you stay connected with the community or at least well informed about what's going on. While moderators can manage the daily issues of a forum, an administrator needs to show involvement from time to time to keep the community on track. A leaderless community will descend into chaos like a rudderless ship. I think personal involvement by admins always make the difference between a happy community and a disgruntled one.
Members respect admins who show involvement and committment even when the going is tough. A simple "Welcome" or "Thank you for the feedback, we appreciate it" can go a long way in improving community atmosphere - provided you show that you mean it.
Finally, stay accountable and take responsibility for staff actions
When you come across difficult situations and find that your staff members have blundered and made it worse, don't compound it by stepping down on their toes. Take responsibility for their actions and apologize if need be for their mistake. But make it clear that you back them to the hilt and they are in your confidence. It's a fine line between admonishing your staff and preserving their dignity. Never admonish staff actions in public. Correct their mistakes, but never step on their toes. This can be done by using impersonal language and taking personal responsibility.
If you've chosen the correct staff as I mentioned before, they should have no issues with this.
Managing an online community is a great challenge. We have the tools to help us run communities, but those tools can only provide the technical base. A forum software cannot sense the pulse of interaction in your community. The human angle of managing communities is often neglected by admins who concentrate solely on technical issues.
Human relations ultimately hold the key, whether real life or online and it holds true for community administrators more than anybody else.