I really enjoy having a tight knit team of moderators who are loyal to me, the community and one another. I’d go so far as to say that it is one of my favorite parts of community management.

Many of the challenges that we face as community managers are those we face in private. They aren’t for our members to know about and be concerned with. I’m talking about the day to day stuff that you do behind the scenes that keeps your community healthy and on track. The stuff that your moderators know about.

You’ll make decisions that are unpopular, but it is always good to know that your staff has your back. They understand what you are doing, why you are doing it and they support you. That’s important.

It doesn’t happen by accident. It starts with having a good selection process and bringing the right people on board. But, over the years, I have developed a series of strategies that I utilize that have allowed me to be successful in creating a great team of people with excellent camaraderie and loyalty. Allow me to share them with you.

Ensure They Are Treated with Respect by Members

My moderators know that if they ever speak to a member in a disrespectful way, we’ll have a problem. Thankfully, this rarely happens because of the quality of the people that we have. But, at the same time, I expect members to treat staff members with respect, as well. I encourage moderators to respond to questions they can answer, regarding site policy and their decisions, when those questions are appropriate and posed respectfully. But, when they are not asked respectfully or the question is one they aren’t comfortable answering, I always ask them to forward the message on to me so that I can handle it.

When people are talking to me, I’ll allow them to get away with more than I would if they were talking to a member of my team. If a member is being disrespectful to a moderator, I take it very seriously. Any number of things could happen. If it is extreme, they could be banned. At the very least, I’ll tell them not to speak to a member of our community, let alone our staff, in a disrespectful manner again. If it continues to happen, I won’t hesitate to ban them.

Don’t Let Them Manage Each Other

I don’t want my staff members managing each other. I want them to support each other and to learn together, but not to think they are responsible for confronting a fellow moderator who they feel might have done something wrong. I think that creates a negative environment where adversarial relationships can grow. Instead, if a staff member sees a fellow member of the team do something they feel might be inappropriate, I ask them to contact me privately and make me aware of it. I will then look at the situation and handle it in the right way. I won’t say that “Susan told me about this.” It’s not important that someone else pointed it out to me.

When an action has to be corrected, it needs to come from me. Not only because I am responsible but because, in general, they will be more receptive to it and not think they now have to watch their back around their fellow moderators. Plus, they’ll know it is definitive, as opposed to it coming from someone at an equal level of authority.

Use Mistakes as Educational Opportunities (Don’t Hang Them Out to Dry)

Recently, I wrote that mistakes by moderators offer teachable moments. Mistakes happen and when they are made, what becomes most important is how you respond to them. This means fixing them and apologizing to affected members, yes. But, how you handle the staff member who made the mistake sends a clear signal to that person and to your other members of staff.

Most mistakes that we make don’t create catastrophic damage. They can be fixed. So, it isn’t worth dwelling on the mistake, aggressively criticizing someone or being angry. Instead, what I focus on is how I want it handled next time. In the future, when we see this situation, this is how we handle it. This helps the staff member and your entire team.

In other words, don’t leave them hanging. Don’t let them feel like they are alone or on an island. Don’t make a point of singling them out or creating a sense of isolation because they made a mistake. This includes any sort of action that may subject them to public humiliation. When a mistake is made, we made it and we fix it.

Shift Blame and Criticism to Me

Teamwork Win
Creative Commons License photo credit: goldberg

Generally speaking, even when a moderator makes a mistake, they are doing what they thought I wanted them to do. So, even if it was their mistake, I make a point of always directing any blame or criticism away from them and to me.

Member: “John was wrong to remove my post!”
Me: “I am responsible for this community and, at the end of the day, John is following the guidelines that I provide. So, if you are unhappy with the moderation of this community, that criticism and feedback should be aimed solely at me.”

This frames the discussion in a different way. I’m ready to listen to the feedback and respond appropriately, but if the member chooses to see a bad guy, the bad guy will be me and not my moderators. Which is exactly what I want. If that means that members like me less, so be it. I believe that part of leadership is protecting your team from criticism and acting as a filter, taking the actionable feedback you receive and applying it directly in conversations with your team. Let’s put it a different way: Would you want to work under someone who simply let members rip into you and never stepped in? Not likely.

Shift Praise to Them

So, if I’m going to say that you should take all the blame, I am at least going to let you keep the praise, right? Sorry. When people say nice things about my community, I thank them. Sometimes, I may talk about the hard work that goes into it behind the scenes and, often, I will specifically mention the staff and our efforts. When we reach milestones and celebrate anniversaries, I almost always make a point of thanking my staff and mentioning current moderators by name.

It was my birthday recently and a member of my staff at KarateForums.com, Brian Walker, started a thread. In it, he said:

Hello everyone.

I wanted to take this opportunity to say Happy Birthday to Patrick. He’s always done such a good job of making sure to recognize everyone that does their part in making KF such a great place to visit, and he’s always so good at deflecting praise and credit away from himself, so I thought he deserved this mention on his birthday.

Thanks for everything you’ve done here for us, Patrick, and I hope you have a Happy Birthday!


The part in bold really touched me. At the end of the day, it’s silly to simply accept praise and not mention others. There is a time and place for talking about your own accomplishments and, sure, I have a great deal of confidence and I know what I bring to the table. But, it’s not about that. It’s about letting other people recognize that. And when they praise your community and your staff, they are praising you. Don’t lose sight of that. Success doesn’t happen due to you alone. We all have people to thank.

Appreciate Them

On that note, I wanted to talk about appreciation. It’s not a once a year thing. It’s not something you only say in cards during the holidays. It’s not something you say only at milestones and on anniversaries. It is a constant thing. I say thank you in most every message I send to or post for a member of staff. When I see them handle a tricky situation in a great way, I point it out and tell them it was great. Even when I’m correcting a mistake, I thank them. I am always thankful because they are an important part of the community and they are helping me to maintain the high standards that we have.

Before I started managing my own communities, I was a moderator on a community owned by someone else. I made thousands of posts and was a moderator for an extended period of time, eventually becoming a senior member of the moderation team. I think that in all the time I spent there, the administrator thanked me twice. That has always stuck with me and has colored my perspective on what it means to be appreciative. You know how people tell you to always remember to tell your family that you love them? That is good advice. The same is true for appreciation. Always remember to tell those you appreciate that you appreciate them. There is no time like the present.

Be Principled and Dismiss Moderators Who Deliberately Undermine You

As I mentioned above, mistakes aren’t that big of a deal, when we learn from them. But, when we don’t learn from them, they can become a problem. Especially if it becomes clear that the moderator is trying to undermine you or circumvent your authority. This is very rare, but it has happened.

In “Managing Online Forums,” I wrote about a member of staff that developed a sense of superiority. At first, he was great. I even considered the person a friend at one point. But, slowly, something changed. They started talking to members with an attitude and, despite my efforts to curtail it, he only became worse. I gave him a lot of opportunities, but eventually it came to a head and he resigned. Once again, I gave him a lot of rope as a member because he had made a lot of contributions to the community. Even after leaving staff, he was  still trying to be poisonous in public, criticizing the staff and attempting to make them feel bad. “If I was still a moderator, this would have been removed already.” Stupid, immature nonsense like that. He finally went too far and was banned.

This set off another wave of nonsense, which amounted to him privately contacting members and telling them how I had wronged him and how it was all my fault. He even tried to contact some of my staff to see if he could turn them against me. Their response? They didn’t like him, either. They didn’t respond to him and shared his messages in the staff forums.

Once I had kicked him off the staff, uniformly, they supported me. I even had at least one or two suggest I had been too patient with him. That they had my back on such a sensitive issue was very meaningful. As the situation evolved, we would document the former staff member’s efforts to hurt the community and, also, make a lot of jokes about how absurd they were. It turned into a really memorable thread that showed all of us how much we liked and supported one another and further developed a great sense of camaraderie.

Tell Them About the Situations I Manage

We have a great system of documentation where moderators document all of their decisions and noteworthy interactions with members regarding site related policies. This includes posts that were removed, why they were removed and the action that was taken. It also includes copies of private message conversations where a member asked a question that was worth documenting or if they made a disrespectful comment (this is a way to refer it to me, as I discussed above). It is very comprehensive.

Not only do I want them to use it, but I use it myself. When I remove a post, which is a constant, I document it, why it was removed and what action I took. When a member sends me a private message that is worth documenting or included a disrespectful comment, I document it and my response. When they refer a message to me because it was disrespectful, I document my responses. In other words, they see pretty much everything I do and every meaningful (as far as our guidelines go) conversation I have with a member. When I do something, they know why. When a member sends me a nasty message, they know how it was handled. When a member is banned, they know the circumstances that led to it. I don’t keep secrets. There is no mysterious ban of a member with no explanation. I document my actions just like I expect them to. They know what challenges I am facing, they know how I have handled them. They see what I see.

They can learn from it, but just as important, they can know and understand my line of thinking. I believe that this is what allows them to get to know me and to really support me. There is no mystery, just a lot of hard work.

These strategies have allowed me to build teams that I am very proud of. Teams populated with great people that have accomplished great things together. Over the years I’ve spent in community management, my moderators have been one of my greatest sources of pride.