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

Tactics for Asking for Volunteers: 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: 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? rbrenOqmxrElpbzkZNDtWner@ChaclZKIUYJkqXfLornQoCanyon.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 broadcast-only sporting event during a pandemicSocial Distancing for Pandemic Flu
It's time we all began to take seriously the warning about a possible influenza pandemic. Whether or not your organization has a plan, you can do much to reduce your own chances of infection, and the chances of mass infection, by adopting a set of practices known as social distancing.
USS Lexington, an early aircraft carrierTroublesome Terminology
The terms we use at work to talk about practices, policies, and procedures are serviceable, for the most part. But some of them carry connotations and hidden messages that undermine our larger purposes.
The bark of the American SycamoreMitigating Outsourcing Risks: II
Outsourcing internal processes exposes the organization to a special class of risks that are peculiar to the outsourcing relationship. Here is Part II of a discussion of what some of those risks are and what can we do about them.
Post-War Lionel TrainsWhen It's Just Not Your Job
Has your job become frustrating because the organization has lost its way? Is circumventing the craziness making you crazy too? How can you recover your perspective despite the situation?
Two barnacles affixed to the shell of a green musselSome Hidden Costs of Business Fads
Adopting business fads is an expensive organizational pattern, with costs that extend beyond what can be measured by the chart of accounts most organizations use. Here are some examples of the hidden costs of business fads.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Jolly RogerComing August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.
RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912And on August 29: Please Reassure Them
When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenrCSMZwlGwBMaoAyjner@ChacbPiefQkmuaksOpMFoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about 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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
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.