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Beowulf slays the dragon: 1908 illustration by J. R. Skelton

Emil shook his head. “Everything I’ve done and worked so hard for, it’s now being looked at as inadequate, even wrong.” He paused, then said, “I’ve been building this volunteer program for over five years now. I’ve increased our volunteer base by 125%. I’ve introduced new ways for volunteers to be involved. I’ve gotten media mentions of our volunteers and just last year I wrote an award nomination for a volunteer that won a local award. So, why, now, do I feel as though I am a failure?”

Emil stopped, then quietly added. “It all started when a brand new upper level manager, Chloe, took over for my manager, Stefan, who quit. Actually I heard that Stefan was pretty much drummed out of here. Why, I don’t know, but I know he fell into disfavor with our CEO. Chloe was hired, as I hear it, to ‘clean up’ Stefan’s departments. It seems as though Chloe has targeted volunteer services before she even met me or took a look at all the successful programs that we have in place. Can we improve? Sure, we can always improve, but surely not everything I’ve accomplished is inadequate. I feel like I was targeted by Chloe from the beginning.”

Ahhhhhh, yes, this scenario is the kind of nightmare that can wake you up in a sweat faster than Count Dracula puncturing your jugular.

The “Slayer,” that incoming manager who was hired or given permission to “clean up” needs to find a beast to slay. Sometimes a beast does exist. For instance, if employees are stealing, or a department is not producing or there is a mutiny afoot, then cleanup is definitely necessary. But if there is not a real beast to slay and the slayer has been given vague directions, then the slayer needs to manufacture one in order to justify his or her position. And sometimes the slayer is a fellow manager or employee who, for whatever reason, has decided to further their standing by skewering you and your department

As the target of the slayer, it is natural to become completely discouraged. It is easy to become angry, to look at the hard work you have done and think that it has been for naught. It is easy to retaliate or to withdraw but that is an emotionally charged reaction.

Instead, because volunteer managers have the skills to work well with anyone, then, even though this becomes personal, those skills can still help.  Trust me, this sticky situation is one of the tougher ones and can be some of the hardest work you’ll ever do, especially if upper management is looking for a beast to slay out of their own emotional reasoning.

Here’s one way to begin dealing with a slayer in a non-emotional, solutions oriented manner: Deflect to a workable goal for all.  You can say, “so very glad to meet you. I’ve heard some encouraging things about you and look forward to making volunteer services even better.” (Ok, you might dry heave a little, but hold that professional stance). Then, show this person all the great things about your volunteer program and point to the things that you feel can be improved-it doesn’t hurt if you can offer some stats, like,  “we can certainly use help with media coverage, we’d love to get to a 15% increase in volunteers this year. Can you help us with that?” or, “You know, I am having the hardest time educating our staff on all the areas our volunteers can be involved in. I sure could use someone with your expertise to create a sustainable educational program.”

Trying to work with the slayer instead of against the slayer will at least take back some of the control. But here’s the secondary point:

Complacency in showcasing volunteer achievements can invite a slayer in. We may think that everyone, including administration, is aware of all the great things volunteers are accomplishing, but in reality, upper management may be hearing cherry picked instances of volunteer absences, or mistakes. They may not know all the good things going on. Proactively making sure that positive volunteer reports reach the highest level of your organization can be a shield against a slayer.

Then, when that sword gleams over your department, the slayer may look for a minute, shrug and say, “Huh, no beast here to slay,” and move on.