When Your Volunteers Aren’t Getting the Job Done

When a committee of volunteers falls short of expectations, it is frequently because they lack adequate training.

Two men try to reach across the divide

There are many organizations that rely heavily on the work of volunteers to carry out the goals and functions of the organization. In fact, many of us receive our first lessons in leadership as volunteers in some type of organization.

When an individual volunteers, or is asked to serve, it is usually assumed that he or she understands the ideals and goals of the organization and is willing to support them. Occasionally a handbook or guidebook is given along with a hearty “thank you for serving,” then they go to work. And we see varying degrees of success (or failure).

I have served in organizations where individuals, or sometimes entire committees, were not measuring up to the goals of the organization, despite their best efforts. Common practice dictates that when this is identified, it is time to change out committee members or chairs, or in extreme cases, disband entire committees. Their responsibilities might then be given to someone who is “better equipped” to get the job done.[1]

You may have seen this in your own volunteer service.

There is something wrong with this picture. Very wrong. Common practice is not necessarily best practice. You wouldn’t buy a new car and hand the keys to your sixteen-year-old without providing some serious training first.

If a volunteer or a committee is failing to do its job, then there is a leadership failure somewhere. Not just the committee chairs, but the leaders who oversee the committees,  have failed if a committee is not functioning as it should.

I believe that the following is important to a new volunteer, or even an experienced volunteer who is serving in a new role.

 

  1. Proper orientation. Assure that the mission, vision, and goals for the organization and the committee are understood. Ensure that the volunteer is aware of the organizational culture and history and understands his or her place within the organization.
  2. Job-specific training. A volunteer should understand his or her role in their particular committee. Never assume that because they volunteered, they already get it. Many positions and assignments have what are disparagingly called “oh-by-the-way” responsibilities. In a well-run organization, volunteers should understand what their positions entail before accepting the responsibility. This should be made clear at the outset. All too often, an “oh-by-the-way” is made known only after a failure.
  3. Outline expectations. The training should include explaining any expectations that come with the position. What is required of the member? How will it be measured? How often is performance evaluated?
  4. Mentoring. Just because a committee has experienced members as well as new people, it should never be assumed that mentoring will occur. Yes, many individuals will take this on by themselves, but this should be assigned by the chair, who should try to identify the best members to mentor a new member.
  5. Empowerment. The new volunteer should feel empowered to speak and to act as a part of his or her assignment. Frequently those with less experience hesitate to share new ideas or seek clarification out of respect to those who are “wiser and more experienced.” That should not be a part of any organization’s culture.
  6. Follow-up. It takes a few meetings or a few assignments to get a grasp on the assignment. Questions don’t often arise until after the volunteer has been involved for a time. Make sure that a respected and experienced member is assigned to provide the follow-up and address the questions.
  7. Re-train as necessary. Inoculations require periodic boosters in order to provide effective coverage. They are not good for a lifetime. In the same way, we should provide training boosters as frequently as needed.

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Naturally, training requires time and resources. It requires raising the organization to a higher level. Some leaders are better qualified than others to provide this training. In any organization, all will come with their own gifts and abilities. It is incumbent upon those vested with the leadership authority to ensure that skills and talents are developed and utilized, not only for the benefit of the organization, but for the benefit of the individuals who volunteer.

A good leader of volunteers does not set his people up for failure: a good leader sets clear expectations and enables his volunteers to achieve them.

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[1] I will admit that there are cases where a committee has performed its designated function or outlived its usefulness and should be disbanded. Sometimes this should also occur due to fiscal concerns. But in my opinion, it should never happen simply because there is a perception of poor performance.

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Course Corrections Assist in Reaching the Destination Safely

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There is a great deal of attention given to the terms “formative assessments” and “summative assessments” in education circles. “Feedback” is sometimes substituted for “assessment,” but the principle doesn’t change.

Let me illustrate with something familiar to most of us. When we fly from airport A to airport B, we note that the pilot gets us there safely and mostly on time, which we appreciate. Our recognition of the pilot’s achievement is the summative feedback: we are grading his overall performance based on the end result.

We are not frequently aware that even on the short flights, the pilot is continually changing course: adjusting the altitude or the direction of the plane. The plane commonly veers off course due to atmospheric conditions, but based on feedback from instruments, the co-pilot and air traffic control, the pilot brings the plane back on course and lands it safely.

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We don’t berate the pilot because he deviated from his planned course a dozen times or more; we praise him because he made corrections and got us to our collective destination. This is formative feedback: the intermediate evaluations that individually are low-stakes evaluations, but together, they produce a significant result.

 

In many organizations, an annual review is customary. In some of those organizations, this may be the only assessment that an employee receives from his leader. What a shock it can be to feel that one is on course all year, only to find that a five-degree course deviation eight months ago led to being significantly off course. Now a major correction is needed (unless a crash has already occurred) in order to return back to the planned path. Had intermediate feedback been given early on, the correction would have been more comfortable and less noticeable.

How can a leader give a beneficial formative assessment?

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The core of formative feedback for the employee consists of three elements, which can be expressed in three questions:

  1. Where are you right now?

The employee must have a sense of his destination. Expectations should be clarified, as well as checkpoints.

  1. Where do you need to be right now?

As above, if clear expectations are given, the employee should already know if he or she is off course.

  1. How can you (or we) close the gap between the two?

Very often an individual readily recognizes that he or she is off course, but has no idea how to return to the planned path, or must be encouraged to make the correction. This may be the good leader’s most important task!

 

The desired assessment should occur at three levels:

  1. Self-assessment

The leader should empower the employee with the necessary tools and training to self-evaluate. I previously wrote about the Dunning Kruger Effect, which describes the need for an individual to reach a certain level of knowledge and skill in order to properly evaluate their own performance (or others’ performance).

If the leader doesn’t recognize this, then he is failing as a leader. We cannot expect excellence if we do not train for it.

  1. Peer assessment

In team efforts, the employee should be able to turn to a colleague for a meaningful formative assessment. Again, this requires that both individuals have the necessary tools. Empowering the team is particularly critical to the success of peer assessments. They must know that this is acceptable. In a sense, this empowerment is a delegation of authority to all involved, and relieves the leader/manager of a portion of his burden.

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  1. Leader (manager) assessment

Finally, the leader assesses. If the team has a proper understanding of the tasks being evaluated and the intended results, this assessment will confirm the judgment of the individual and their peers. This can be a powerful morale builder for everyone. It also becomes a checkpoint for the leader to assess his efficacy in directing the project.

 

Of course, all of this necessitates that the leader have a presence among his team. The principle of MBWA (management by walking around) lends itself well to providing formative feedback. If a leader remains isolated and doesn’t offer correction until disaster strikes, then trust, confidence and morale will be undermined.

I am not suggesting that the leader micromanage. This is not desirable. But the leader should train, empower and monitor personally in order to see that his team reaches their desired destination; that they achieve their individual, team and organizational goals.

 

A good leader will provide frequent navigational assistance to his team because he wants to see them reach their destination safely.

Take the Lead in Preparing

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Disasters, either natural or man-made, pose a year-round threat to most of us. A good leader will prepare for the unexpected in order to be ready to guide his team through a disaster.

Potential disasters will vary from one region to another. In my area, the greatest threat is posed by earthquakes or human-caused disasters. Wildfires and flash flooding are also potential threats. Hurricanes and ice storms are highly unlikely for us. While we can’t adequately prepare for every possible disaster, we can take basic steps to ensure that we are ready.

There a several steps a good leader can take to help his team be prepared.

  1. Plan

A leader must have a general emergency plan in place. In 30 years, I have experienced two significant earthquakes while at work. This taught me what I need to do if it happens again. Risk assessment is important. I have surveyed each office I have worked in so that I knew the best exit routes and how far from the building I needed to be in order to be safe. This included surveying for overhead power lines and other potential hazards. You don’t want to walk from one hazard into another one. I have rehearsed the process in my mind, but I didn’t stop there.

2. Train

It is important to make sure that your team understands expectations and how to act in an emergency. There will also be concerns specific to each type of team or business.

You will all need to keep your cool and be of assistance to visitors and others who are onsite. Knowing evacuation routes and meeting places is critical. It is also important to know when not to evacuate.

One example: I work next to a major railway freight line. One of our possible concerns is a derailment with hazardous materials. We cannot evacuate if there is a hazardous material concern outside, unless the building itself is in danger.

3. Delegate assignments

Each team member should have a responsibility. For example, someone can take charge of inspecting your facility for potential hazards. Someone can monitor expiration dates on emergency supplies. Someone has to take the lead during an evacuation. Someone could grab the first-aid kit or a “go-bag” on their way out. And someone needs to be designated as the last one out. And don’t forget those who will need assistance.

These responsibilities as well as others that you may identify should be assigned and understood. Even as a dentist and a faculty member, I have a specific emergency responsibility in our clinic. And people respect this uniform!

The managing partner, hard at work.

4. Prepare supplies

When we think about supplies, first aid supplies come to mind first. But other items will assist our team as well. A supply of emergency food and water may be beneficial. A set of clothing and sturdy walking shoes in a small duffel bag can be beneficial if you and your team dress professionally.

5. Regularly update information and training

The prepared leader will have contact information for his or her entire team, and for their family members or significant others. Contact information should include various media types, e.g. email addresses, cell numbers, even social media info. In a pinch, you want to have all the possibilities covered. Communication during and after the emergency is critical.

Think about this: some disasters will occur while we are not at work. It may become important to contact your team to tell them not to come to work in some situations.

Remember also that training is not a one-time event. A good leader will set aside time to retrain and refresh skills, as well as to bring new team members up to speed.

A good leader will ensure that he and his team are ready to face a disaster. And we should think about more than just the human element. What about data backups and important documents? If you plan ahead and make use of available resources, you will be able to face an emergency with confidence.Emergency_Preparedness

Please note that this is meant to be an overview only. Due the variations in leadership situations, businesses, geographic locations and potential disasters, I cannot cover all the possibilities. You must make relevant preparations for your own situation. For more information, checklists, and training materials, see ready.gov, or websites for your state, province, or local disaster agencies or the Red Cross. British Columbia has an outstanding website for my Canadian friends. There are also many commercial entities who can provide helpful resources for your preparedness needs.

What was John Wayne’s take on the Scout Law?

Scouting was a big part of my life. It is where I learned many life skills and began learning how to be a leader. It shaped me, and many of my contemporaries. Because Boy Scouts is founded upon moral principles, and actually believes in standards, it is under attack by those who feel that there should be no moral standards in society. this has already done irreparable damage to the foundations of Scouting, and I fear that it will lead to the demise of a once-great program for youth.

I am reposting this blog post from Bryan on Scouting, from BSA’s website: http://blog.scoutingmagazine.org/2015/08/13/john-waynes-take-scout-law/ because it quotes from John Wayne on what is most important in Scouting: specifically the Scout Law. The principles are timeless. At least if you still believe in principles. I happen to believe very strongly that we need principles as a foundation of a strong society.

What was John Wayne’s take on the Scout Law?

In 1979, dignitaries including President Gerald Ford honored Academy Award-winning actor John Wayne at a dinner hosted by the BSA’s Los Angeles Area Council.

The council named the John Wayne Outpost Camp after The Duke, paying tribute to the actor only a few months before his death on June 11, 1979.

It was at this dinner that Wayne shared his own interpretation of the Scout Law and what it means to him. (This script is from the May-June 1979 issue of Scouting found in our archives.)

“A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent,” he said.

“Nice words. Trouble is, we learn them so young we sometimes don’t get all the understanding that goes with them. I take care of that with my family. As each boy reaches Scout age, I make sure he learns the Scout Law. Then I break it down for him with a few things I’ve picked up in the more than half century since I learned it.

“A Scout is …


Trustworthy – The badge of honesty. Having it lets you look any man straight in the eye. Lacking it, he won’t look back. Keep this one at the top of your list.

Loyal – The very word is life itself, for without loyalty we have no love of person or country.

Helpful – Part sharing, part caring. By helping each other, we help ourselves, not to mention mankind. Be always full of help — the dying man’s last words.

Friendly – Brotherhood is part of that word. You can take it in a lot of directions — and do — but make sure and start with brotherhood.

Courteous – Allow each person his human dignity, which means a lot more than saying “yes ma’am” and “Thank you, sir.” It reflects an attitude that later in life you “wish you had honored more … earlier in life.” Save yourself that problem. Do it now.

Kind – This one word would stop wars and erase hatreds. But it’s like your bicycle. It’s just no good unless you get out and use it.

Obedient – Start at home, practice it on your family, enlarge it to your friends, share it with humanity.

Cheerful – Anyone can put on a happy face when the going’s good. The secret is to wear it as a mask for your problems. It might surprise you how many others do the same thing.

Thrifty – Means a lot more than putting pennies away, and it’s the opposite of cheap. Common sense covers it just about as well as anything.

Brave – You don’t have to fight to be brave. Millions of good, fine, decent folks show more bravery than heavyweight champs just by getting out of bed every morning, going out to do a good day’s work, and living the best life they know how against a lot of odds. Brave. Keep the word handy every day of your life.

Clean – Soap and water help a lot on the outside. But it’s the inside that counts and don’t ever forget it.

Reverent – Believe in anything that you want to believe in, but keep God at the top of it. With Him, life can be a beautiful experience. Without Him, you are just biding time.

Wayne thanked the hosts for putting his name on the Scout camp, adding, “I would rather see it here than on all the theater marquees the world over.”

Unwarranted Confidence, or Too Dumb to Know that I’m Dumb

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I was recently introduced to a fascinating psychological concept known as the Dunning Kruger Effect.[1] One reason it grabbed my attention was that John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, was the one who introduced it to me. You may not be aware that Cleese is a Visiting Professor at Cornell University, where he lectures on the creative process, among other things. Wouldn’t you love to take classes from him?

Cleese describes the effect: “in order to know how good you are at something requires exactly the same skills as it does to be good at that thing in the first place. Which means, and this is terribly funny, that if you are absolutely no good at something at all, then you lack exactly the skills that you need to know that you’re absolutely no good at it.” He adds “You see, if you are very, very stupid, how can you possibly realize that you are very, very stupid? You’d have to be relatively intelligent to realize how stupid you are.”[2]

The Dunning Kruger Effect is a phenomenon where unskilled individuals rate their own abilities much higher than they really are, simply because they lack the skills to properly evaluate their own skills. This idea has been validated in well-constructed studies measuring self-awareness of social, logical and grammatical skills. Statistical analysis showed that the effect held true in each of these unrelated areas. Another portion showed that when individuals received some training in the subject material, their ability to self-assess improved significantly.[3]

This has been compared to the “Lake Wobegon Effect,” as stated by Garrison Keillor: “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Without proper feedback, everyone views themselves as above average. And most of us realize that this is a mathematical impossibility. Of course, there is no research to substantiate this effect.

What does this mean for leaders? How can we apply this? If the unskilled cannot accurately evaluate their own performance, how can we expect them to function better? The leader must invest time and effort in training the people he leads if he expects his organization to move forward. It may be argued that only the leader’s investment in himself or herself is more important.

This training may also be delegated to other capable individuals. But the unskilled must have good mentors! And the mentors also need regular guidance.

I believe that this is why so many leaders choose to micromanage: to them, it seems simpler to manage everything themselves than to train their followers. In like manner, it is much quicker for a parent to do household chores than to take the time to help their children learn. But the time invested pays big dividends.

This is a lesson that a teacher should understand well. As our dental students begin to learn dental skills, I have noticed that it is difficult for them to evaluate their work, but as they progress, their evaluation skills tend to improve. And it is absolutely critical that they learn to accurately self-assess before they receive their degrees! I will never forget the morning a new third-year student received a start check to perform just his second restorative procedure on a live patient. With an air of confidence, he told the attending faculty “In my experience this is very straightforward.” I wonder if he still feels that way.

And added challenge for the leader is that the incompetent are generally unable to recognize competence in others. Based on the work of Dunning, it becomes imperative that we make sure that those whom we lead have sufficient training to do what is expected of them. If we fail to provide that training, we are preparing our organization for failure. Individual growth leads to organizational growth.

A good leader trains his people.

“The doorstep to the temple of wisdom is a knowledge of our own ignorance.” 

-Benjamin Franklin

[1] Dunning, D., et al. (2003). Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence. Current Direction in Psychological Science, 12:3, 83-87.

[2] YouTube. John Cleese On Stupidity, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvVPdyYeaQU

[3] Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1121–1134.