Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Everyone is a Volunteer Even if They Get Paid

As employers or organizational leaders, we sometimes view the contributions others make to the organization as "owed" to us. They get a paycheck, after all. Or, if they are volunteers, they "signed up for this" and owe us a commitment.

As leaders we need to recognize that everyone, even if they get a paycheck, is a volunteer.

Even though we as leaders may live under the delusion that others do our bidding because they are compelled to do so because of our position or title and their desire for self-preservation, the reality is they choose how they will do it, when they will do it, how well they will do it, and even if they will do it. If this weren't the case, then performance appraisal, discipline, etc., would be unnecessary.

Whether one uses the carrot or the stick, it is important to remember that we can only influence behavior, we cannot compel or control it. One need only consider the prisoner of war who, despite hellish torture and deprivation, is still able to choose not to be compelled -- even if doing so means annihilation. While all of us may have had "the job from hell" at some point in our careers, no one, I think, has faced the conditions of a prisoner of war in the corporate environment.

We might take the perspective, then, that those under our leadership provide their time and talent as a gift freely given. Whether we recognize it or not, people do have other options and could make different choices. If they do the job assigned, it is because they choose to provide service to us and our organization.

With this in mind, we can view leadership differently. What do we need to consider if everyone is a volunteer?

Personal Priorities: Our priorities are measured by where we put our time. If I say my family is my priority but spend all my time at work, I'm kidding myself. Clearly, whether I am willing to acknowledge it, work is my priority. Thus, an employee who truly values family more than work may choose not to do a task assigned because it interferes with family time. Being clear, then, on our volunteers' priorities can assist us in recognizing how to create an environment where the task can be done without having to compete with a higher priority. Attempting to change another person's inner priorities will only lead to frustration.

Desire to Make a Difference: One aspect of voluntarism is a desire to make a difference. Is my contribution meaningful? Does it have an impact? Sometimes, the tasks that must be performed seem meaningless and of little influence. The reality is, every action, no matter how small, is meaningful. Processes are interdependent. A simple invoice sent with the correct information, sent to the right address in a prompt manner can have enormous impact on a customer's perception of your business and their desire to continue working with you. While a salesperson may get the glory for bringing in the customer, the accounts receivable clerk may have just as much impact on your profitability. Thus, communicating the importance of even the small actions and appreciating the contribution made in the context of its impact on the success of the organization is very important.

Passion for the Cause: We willingly gift our time and talent with no expectation of return when we are passionate about a cause. What makes people passionate about a cause? It is the perceived positive impact being made in the world. Does your organization have a cause others can be passionate about? Does your product or service truly contribute to a better world? Or, maybe more indirectly, does your production of that product or service enable the organization to contribute to a better world? If so, then that should be communicated and reinforced by organizational leadership.

Other reasons people have for volunteering include:
  • Achievement: to enjoy a sense of accomplishment.
  • Recognition and Feedback: to be held in high esteem by your fellows and get a "pat on the back."
  • Personal Growth: to stretch and learn.
  • Giving Something Back: to return the blessings you have received. In the job setting, this could be someone who has had an exquisite career but now wants to teach, mentor or counsel.
  • Friendship, Support and a Feeling of Belonging: how often have you stayed in a job longer than you might have simply because you loved the people you worked with? How often have you heard that "people don't leave jobs, they leave people?"

Employees seek and stay in jobs for many of the same reasons they volunteer. Finding out what stirs their passion to volunteer can also help you determine what stirs their passion for work in general.