Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 52;   December 26, 2007: Tactics for Asking for Volunteers: II

Tactics for Asking for Volunteers: II

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Last updated: August 8, 2018

When we seek volunteers for specific, time-limited tasks, a common approach is just to ask the entire team at a meeting or teleconference. It's simple, but it carries risks. There are alternatives.
Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., (right) bids farewell to Gen. Bernard Montgomery (left) at the Palermo airport

Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., bids farewell to Gen. Bernard Montgomery at the Palermo airport in Sicily on July 28, 1943. By then their rivalry, which was to become one of Gen. Eisenhower's most serious leadership difficulties, was nearing its zenith. Rivalry between team members can provide motivation for volunteering, but it comes at a high price paid in terms of team cohesion. It's tempting for team leaders to exploit or even stimulate rivalries, but the effect of such tactics is usually expensive and might even threaten the team's mission. Gen. Eisenhower dealt with the rivalry between the two generals by separating them as best he could, but political constraints on Eisenhower's authority probably prevented him from choosing more effective tactics. Photo from "Images from World War II: The Early Years," compiled by Capt. John F. Curley, courtesy U.S. Army Center of Military History.

When leaders or managers ask teams or groups for volunteers for a specific task of limited duration, things usually work out fine. But sometimes we get too many volunteers, too few volunteers, or a basket of trouble. Here's Part II of a collection of tactics to help you through the sticky situations that sometimes arise when you ask for volunteers. See "Tactics for Asking for Volunteers: I," Point Lookout for December 19, 2007, for more.

When the wrong people volunteer
Some volunteers are already overloaded, but they volunteer because they want the assignment, or they believe that the task is politically valuable. Some care little about the task itself, and some lack necessary technical or interpersonal skills.
If some people aren't ready or right for the task, in some cases, you can convert the situation into a developmental opportunity. Explain privately that you'd like to offer them a future assignment, if they address the issues you've noticed. Ask for their views, and together work towards a development plan that leads to a workable outcome for all concerned.
If you take a developmental approach, don't promise the "next" opportunity — it commits you to making the offer, independent of the volunteer's progress. Keep future assignments contingent on progress against the development plan.
If you believe that some people will never be right for the task in question, and if tasks of that kind are a significant fraction of your team's work, consider whether these people are better placed elsewhere. You might want to keep them on for their ability to contribute in other ways, but recognize that if you do, and if they continue to harbor other ambitions, you're at risk of accepting a chronic irritant that could escalate.
When designating one leader might offend the others
For a multi-person task group, it's usually best to designate a lead. This can be difficult or awkward, but failing to do so just shifts the burden of that difficulty to the task group. It leaves them with an ongoing problem whenever they must decide anything.
Designating a Designating a lead after
you've selected the volunteers
can be trouble, especially
if more than one of
them wants the position
lead after you've selected the volunteers can be trouble, especially if more than one of them wants the position, or if those not selected might feel slighted. In effect, you've created a mini-mess — and some of these messes aren't so mini.
To avoid these problems, ask for volunteers for the lead before you ask for volunteers for the task — or select a lead in advance, privately. Once the task lead is named, everyone who volunteers knows the structure of the task group, and that clarity removes much of the risk of interpersonal difficulty.

Although we ask for volunteers to find people who actually want the assignments, the process often uncovers problems within the team. Addressing those problems might seem difficult, but it's preferable to avoiding asking for volunteers. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Our Last Meeting Together  Next Issue

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