Trust is important in any kind of interpersonal relationship. It’s inevitable that there will be cases where something you do will irritate or upset others, even if only to a small degree. Handling small cases well helps build trust that you will do the right thing in more significant cases, whereas ignoring things that seem fairly insignificant (or saying that you’ll do something about them and then failing to do so) suggests that you’ll also fail when there’s a major problem. Getting the small details right is a major part of creating the impression that you’ll deal with significant challenges in a responsible and considerate way.
This isn’t limited to individual relationships. Something that distinguishes good customer service from bad customer service is getting the details right. There are many industries where significant failures happen infrequently, but minor ones happen a lot. Would you prefer to give your business to a company that handles those small details well (even if they’re not overly annoying) or one that just tells you to deal with them?
And the same is true of software communities. A strong and considerate response to minor bug reports makes it more likely that users will be patient with you when dealing with significant ones. Handling small patch contributions quickly makes it more likely that a submitter will be willing to do the work of making more significant contributions. These things are well understood, and most successful projects have actively worked to reduce barriers to entry and to be responsive to user requests in order to encourage participation and foster a feeling that they care.
But what’s often ignored is that this applies to other aspects of communities as well. Failing to use inclusive language may not seem like a big thing in itself, but it leaves people with the feeling that you’re less likely to do anything about more egregious exclusionary behaviour. Allowing a baseline level of sexist humour gives the impression that you won’t act if there are blatant displays of misogyny. The more examples of these “insignificant” issues people see, the more likely they are to choose to spend their time somewhere else, somewhere they can have faith that major issues will be handled appropriately.
There’s a more insidious aspect to this. Sometimes we can believe that we are handling minor issues appropriately, that we’re acting in a way that handles people’s concerns, while actually failing to do so. If someone raises a concern about an aspect of the community, it’s important to discuss solutions with them. Putting effort into “solving” a problem without ensuring that the solution has the desired outcome is not only a waste of time, it alienates those affected even more – they’re now not only left with the feeling that they can’t trust you to respond appropriately, but that you will actively ignore their feelings in the process.
It’s not always possible to satisfy everybody’s concerns. Sometimes you’ll be left in situations where you have conflicting requests. In that case the best thing you can do is to explain the conflict and why you’ve made the choice you have, and demonstrate that you took this issue seriously rather than ignoring it. Depending on the issue, you may still alienate some number of participants, but it’ll be fewer than if you just pretend that it’s not actually a problem.
One warning, though: while building trust in this way enhances people’s willingness to join your community, it also builds expectations. If a significant issue does arise, and if you fail to handle it well, you’ll burn a lot of that trust in the process. The fact that you’ve built that trust in the first place may be what saves your community from disintegrating completely, but people will feel even more betrayed if you don’t actively work to rebuild it. And if there’s a pattern of mishandling major problems, no amount of getting the details right will matter.
Communities that ignore these issues are, long term, likely to end up weaker than communities that pay attention to them. Making sure you get this right in the first place, and setting expectations that you will pay attention to your contributors, is a vital part of building a meaningful relationship between your community and its members.