Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 51;   December 19, 2007: Tactics for Asking for Volunteers: Part I

Tactics for Asking for Volunteers: Part I

by

CEOs, board chairs, department heads and team leads of all kinds sometimes seek people to handle specific, time-limited tasks. Asking the group for volunteers works fine — usually. There are alternatives.
Huskies along the trail during start day, March 1998, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

Huskies along the trail during start day, March 1998, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. At distances over ten miles, the racing sled dog is the fastest animal in the world. There is a widely-held, but false, belief that sled dog teams are hierarchical, and that the lead sled dog is dominant. In racing, the need for high performance creates a need for absolute teamwork, which is incompatible with hierarchy. Position along the gang line is determined not by hierarchy but by the talents required for that position, and by matching partners. This might explain why a common problem plaguing dog drivers is of the too-many-volunteers type. In a book co-authored with Lorna Coppinger, Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution, Raymond Coppinger tells a story about his dog Rena that illustrates this point. One race weekend, Rena had sore feet and he had to leave her at home. She howled continuously for days, and when he returned she was so hoarse that her barks were nothing but squeaks. Rena would not be denied. Note: Although some consider the Iditarod to be cruel and abusive of the dogs, sled dog racing generally is less controversial. Photo by Jeff Schultz, courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress.

Leaders of all kinds ask for volunteers for specific, short-duration tasks. Volunteers tend to be more intrinsically motivated — they want to do well because they sought the assignment. Yet, asking for volunteers isn't always as easy as we'd hope. Here's Part I of a collection of tactics to help you through the sticky situations that sometimes arise when asking for volunteers.

When nobody volunteers
Very little is more demoralizing to a team leader than that awkward silence that follows a request for volunteers. People tend to assume that nobody wants the job, and filling the position in question — or other positions, too — can become more difficult.
Perhaps the job is repugnant or stigmatized. If so, sweeten the package somehow in advance.
But silence doesn't necessarily mean nobody wants the job. People can decline for fear of rejection, or overload, or because they anticipate more appealing opportunities.
If you expect awkward silence, consider whether you're asking too much, or whether your past behavior might be at issue. Perhaps people see working with you as risky, or not worth the trouble.
If your requests are reasonable, if you've treated volunteers well, and you still have trouble, then seek volunteers in other ways. Try personal contact by email, telephone, or in face-to-face.
When too many volunteer
When too many people volunteer, you must choose some and reject others. In a healthy team, this isn't a big deal. People know that your selection of others doesn't necessarily reflect on those not selected, and they know that other opportunities will follow.
But if some team members might experience painful rejection, your choice to accept other offers can be problematic. This can happen to team leaders who've acquired a reputation for setting team members against one another, or who've used plum assignments as a means of creating competition. Or it can happen when leaders systematically reject the offers of some team members without explanation, or when team leaders have played favorites.
Accepting all applicants isn't a solution, because it fails to address the basic problem: too many for the task at hand. If you expect that too many will volunteer, make your request in a way that limits this risk. Make your request offline, and apply an objective criterion such as "first to reply." Or contact individuals by telephone or in person.

The leaders' Accepting all applicants
isn't a solution, because
it fails to address the
basic problem: too many
for the task at hand
own motivations are also important. Some examples: we might ask for volunteers because we seek the validation that volunteers provide; or we might fear being rejected if we simply ask someone to take on added responsibility. Dealing with these issues by shifting the burden to the team isn't likely to work — people can sense the true motive. Seek volunteers because you really want volunteers.

Next time, we'll turn to questions about getting the right people and the right leadership. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Tactics for Asking for Volunteers: Part II  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenOqzFaQEAUMeMnCMrner@ChacScPYpJdGVHcvijLBoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A bear trapThe Mind Reading Trap
When we think, "Paul doesn't trust me," we could be fooling ourselves into believing that we can read his mind. Unless he has directly expressed his distrust, we're just guessing, and we can reach whatever conclusion we wish, unconstrained by reality. In project management, as anywhere else, that's a recipe for trouble.
A hiker in the La Primavera calderaCommitment Makes It Easier
When you face obstacles, sometimes the path around or through them is difficult. Committing yourself to the path lets you focus all your energy on the path you've chosen.
The Lincoln Memorial at sunriseOrganizational Loss: Searching Behavior
When organizations suffer painful losses, their responses can sometimes be destructive, further harming the organization and its people. Here are some typical patterns of destructive responses to organizational loss.
Signers of the 1938 Munich AgreementHow to Reject Expert Opinion: Part I
When groups of decision-makers confront complex problems, they sometimes choose not to consult experts or to reject their advice. How do groups come to make these choices?
American Eclipse, an American racehorse who lived from 1814 to 1847Holding Back: Part II
Members of high-performing teams rarely hold back effort. But truly high performance is rare in teams. Here is Part II of our exploration of mechanisms that account for team members' holding back effort they could contribute.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Balancing talk time and the value of the contributionComing March 29: Virtual Blowhards
Controlling meeting blowhards is difficult enough in face-to-face meetings, but virtual meetings present next-level problems, because techniques that work face-to-face are unavailable. Here are eight tactics for controlling virtual blowhards. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
kudzu enveloping a Mississippi landscapeAnd on April 5: Listening to Ramblers
Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum? Available here and by RSS on April 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenTVTphNWpHdxwMtFpner@ChaclYXlROjpScHPDamPoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Conflict Resolution Skills for Leaders
ConflConflict Resolution Skills for Leadersict is inherent in collaborative work. When conflict is constructive, it produces better outcomes. When it's destructive, it can be an insurmountable obstacle to success. In this program, we explore the connections between the outcomes of collaboration and conflict in both of its forms. And we emphasize the skills needed most by leaders. The leader's task is to manage conflict so as to ensure that the group achieves its objective with its capacity to collaborate intact, or even enhanced. Rick Brenner shows team leaders and team sponsors the techniques they need to manage team conflict for relationship safety and better outcomes. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Influencing Outcomes Without Authority
Your Influencing Outcomes Without Authorityability to influence others — whether upward, downward, laterally, or within a team — always depends on both the quality of your relationships with the people you influence, and on your perception and their perception of your personal power. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you the techniques for making things happen not by using formal organizational power, but by using informal, personal power. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Times
When Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Timesa project team is on task, the contributions of leaders are important, and little noticed. Sometimes the team encounters unexpected difficulty, or requirements change, or budgets are reduced, or any of a number of other things might happen. In these cases, the leader must make or facilitate decisions about how to respond or how to revise the plan. We get through it somehow. Hard times are something else altogether. Despondency, disillusionment, resource shortages, unexpected and severe failure of the plan, and toxic conflict can erode morale. How can leaders deal with such situations? Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Technical Debt: A Workshop for Enterprise Leaders
TechnTechnical Debt Management for Enterprise Leadersical debt is more than mere IT jargon. It's a metaphor that refers to the accumulation of technical artifacts that really ought to be retired, replaced, rewritten, re-implemented, or, if absent, created. We can find technical debt in almost any system, including those that seem to be working well. So what's the problem? The problem is the "interest charges." Systems carrying technical debt are more difficult to maintain, more difficult to extend or enhance, and more difficult to use, than they would be if we "retired" the debt. This engaging and eye-opening program points the way to a path that leads your organization out of technical debt, to make it more adaptable, more transformable, and more agile. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.