I have this friend who prides herself on “being ok” with adjusting to whatever the situation presents. However, at the same time, she makes side comments about having to adapt or being uncomfortable. So, I’m confused. Is she ok or is she not?
It makes me think of certain volunteers I’ve known who do the same thing. “Oh, that’s fine,” they’ll say or “no problem,” when in fact, it isn’t fine and it is a problem. And here’s the thing with these confusing messages. The people who tell you they’re ok when they’re really not believe that they are making it easier on you, when in fact, they are making it way harder, because here you are, spending mental and emotional energy trying to figure out what they need through the cryptic verbal and body language clues they give.
When you ask them to be honest, they brush it off, saying, “it’s no big deal.” But you know better. So, what can we do with these volunteers? Banish them from our programs? Continue to play a part in their game of emotional hide and seek?
For what it’s worth, I’ve developed a few methods over the years when dealing with the “I’m ok, but really I’m not” messaging. They are:
Be direct by addressing the verbal or body language clues: Say to your volunteer, “I appreciate you telling me that you are fine with the change in assignment, but I’m sensing from your comments (or body language or tone) that you’re not fine and that’s ok. I want to make sure we address your concerns because you are vitally important to us and you play a huge part in how we achieve our goal.”
Lay out your ability to spot clues up front: Tell volunteers in training or meetings that it is your job to observe them. Make it funny if you like, but get the point across that you (maybe you say it’s a curse) can spot bulls#$@ a mile away from years of working with people. You can make it fun by calling it your fib o’meter or something similar. Tell them you will call them out and then jokingly yell, “The fib o’meter says you are not ok!” Everyone will laugh, but the point is made.
Then add the serious element. Let volunteers know that it is your job to make sure they are giving their time free of annoyances, because their experiences should enhance their lives, not complicate them. And, volunteering by grudging acquiescence doesn’t help anyone, themselves included.
Check up on them: Ask questions. Ask clients, other volunteers and staff. Checking in to see how volunteers are faring is part of our job. If you hear that “volunteer Jules is complaining all the time,” then by all means, address it. Job satisfaction is a key component to not only volunteer sustainability, but also key to bringing a volunteer’s best work which is what we want our clients to have.
Enlist staff: Enlighten them on the effects of changing volunteer assignments or time-frames or requirements. Let them know that changing or canceling an assignment at the last moment creates volunteer acquiescence which leads to volunteer fatigue which leads to volunteer burnout.
Make it clear that this behavior is unproductive: If you’ve had multiple conversations and the behavior is affecting job performance, then you have to weigh whether this volunteer is irreplaceable and whether you have to accept any and all behaviors. But also look at the ripple effect. How does this behavior affect other volunteers? What message does the acceptance of negative behavior send to your team?
I vividly remember this one volunteer when I managed a thrift store. Our team was pretty happy most of the time and this new volunteer came in and complained continuously to the other volunteers but told me that “everything was fine.” The team’s mood shifted.
One day, I just couldn’t take any more “I’m fine” talk. It wasn’t so much that this volunteer annoyed me, it was the fact that she was destroying the volunteer team’s productive balance. So, I took her aside and pointedly asked, “are you happy here?”
To my surprise, she hesitated and then said, “not really,” and told me she thought the store was poorly run and the other volunteers were incompetent. I said, “then I don’t think you should be in a place that makes you this unhappy.” I didn’t fire her; I gave her my opinion that she should take the steps to quit and she did. On the spot.
From simply being accomodating to acquiescence to out-and-out hiding displeasure, there are many levels of volunteer flexibility. It falls upon us to determine when flexibility turns into grudging compliance and burnout. The more (with kindness) direct we are with volunteers, the closer we get to their motivations and true satisfaction.
And ultimately by investigating the emotions behind the words, we acheive that intersection between volunteer sustainability and mission transformative work. It’s the place where volunteers give of their time and talents freely, a place where volunteers get back the intangible rewards that fill them with joy and a place where the volunteers’ contributions have a profound effect.
It’s a magical place where everyone wins.