Irked by a co-worker? Personality may not be the problem

getting-in-the-way-of-volunteer-management-twenty-hatsZoe is the volunteer manager for a literacy program. Sometimes she gets calls from volunteers who have been inactive for months – sometimes years, and want to pick up where they left off.

Zoe gets concerned about the casual way these volunteers treat their commitment and their lack of current training – she would rather see reliable volunteers in their place.  But several of her co-workers are pressuring Zoe to start scheduling some of their favorites. Zoe feels coerced and thinks that her co-workers are interfering way too much.

Zoe is not real, but perhaps this scenario rings true for you. And if not this exact scenario, then perhaps some variation of it.

These situations bring a lot of angst and discord because they feel so personal –  as if your colleagues are creating problems just for you. Or, it may seem even more global like you’re just plain unlucky and ended up with co-workers who are biased, oppositional, and downright hard to deal with.

If only the Zoes of the world worked in a more mature environment. They could get a lot more done.

But here’s what I’ve observed about 90% of these situations:

Where there is conflict there is a lack of a process.  In other words, the problem arises because there is no clear policy or system in place to address a problem. What’s occurring has very little to do with temperament and a lot to do with creating strong systems.

It’s not always easy to suss out the policy issue behind a conflict. I see my clients contend with these situations a lot. That’s why I love getting volunteer managers out of their typical setting and into a retreat or a coaching circle.  We often need that shift in perspective to get objective about a dilemma.

In Zoe’s case, her program needs to limit how long an inactive volunteer remains on the rolls. It could be 6 months, one year – the time frame does not matter. Having the policy in place makes the decision-making simple. It’s no longer a personal issue. There is a standard that needs to be honored.

Here’s another example:

Denise’s Executive Director wants the hiring of hotline volunteers to be a team decision.  The thing is, the team can never come to agreement about the volunteers. Even worse, two team members always line up together and outvote the third member.  Denise wishes she could go back to the old system, where she made the final decision and her ED signed off. This process seems very biased and subjective.

Denise’s problem is not the alliance between the two team members. It’s that the group has not defined the competencies that they seek in a hotline volunteers. Once they develop some uniform standards, the team can base their decisions on required competencies rather than opinions.

Or take this dilemma:

Lydia has just been promoted to Volunteer Director, which means she now leads the weekly meetings with her fellow volunteer managers.  She’s worried about how her co-workers will handle her new authority, so to level the playing field she starts her first meeting by asking if the team would like to set goal for the hour. The team nixes the idea and says they don’t need a goal. Lydia feels undermined and spends the rest of the day worrying about how to work with such a resentful bunch of co-workers.

In this case, the problem has less to do with Lydia’s change in status and more to do with setting meeting expectations.  If Lydia shifts from a yes/no question to asking “What’s our goal for this meeting?” – and does so consistently every week, she will receive the outcome she desires.

As volunteer managers, our greatest strength is our people skills – the intuitive way that we build relationships to serve our programs and our volunteers.  We need to support those wonderful skills with policies and processes that enhance the positive and counteract the negative. Otherwise, it’s possible to mis-read some very fixable situations. And we deserve better than that.




My Six Principles of Buy-In will help you manage conflict, too! Email me to receive a handout about the principles and a next steps worksheet – and I’ll add you to the Twenty Hats mailing list.