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Why Volunteer Teams Don't Work
How to Make the Team Work

by Thomas W. McKee


It was a great ideaóbut it just didn't seem to work. I promoted it hard and believed in it, but what went wrong? I believed that if we changed the names of our committees to teams or a special task force, we could accomplish two goals:

1. We would get away from the stigma of working on a committee. Remember the words of Fred Allen: "A committee is a group of the unprepared, appointed by the unwilling, to do the unnecessary."
2. People would not feel the personal pressure when they feel there are others to share the load.

Great idea to get rid of dysfunctional committees. What went wrong? Beginning the second half of the 20th century people began to change the way they worked together, in the work place and in organizations. Two major influences created a paradigm shift in the United States and changed the way teams work. I did not take seriously these two influences when I changed the name of the committee to action team.

First factor: The Vietnam War

The first influence was the Vietnam War. Baby boomers did not accept the chain of command like their parents did. Their parents saw the winning of World War II as the greatest leadership victory since the Roman armies marched and therefore they respected the governmental and military decision making. However, the baby boomers born after 1946 learned to question governmental and military decision making because of the mismanagement of the Vietnam War. They see the Vietnam war as one of the biggest leadership blunders of their time; therefore, baby boomers want to be a part of the decision making process. Many baby boomers follow the rule of government management:

It is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Second factor: The rise of the knowledge worker

In the 1980s another major change took place in how we work together. This change was the rise of the knowledge worker in place of the skilled worker. What is the difference?

Skilled Worker: The skilled worker does not make decisions. Skilled workers merely do what they are told to do.

Knowledge Worker: The knowledge worker can make decisions without asking for permission. The knowledge worker is empowered.

The knowledge worker/skilled worker story is dramatically demonstrated by Tom Peters in his book In Search of Excellence. He reported an experiment in which people in group "A" were given puzzles to solve and some rather dull proofreading to do. While they were doing these two tasks, an audio tape featuring one person speaking Spanish, two people speaking Armenian, a mimeograph machine running, a chattering typewriter, and a street noise was playing in the background. Another group, called group "B," were doing the same projects and listening to the same tape. However, they were each given a button that they could push to suppress the noise. The group with the buttons to push solved five times more puzzles and made one-quarter as many proofreading errors as those who had no button. But the astounding news was that those who could push the button never once pushed it. The mere fact that they could push the button made the difference. They possessed the power of ownership.

The workers with buttons were knowledge workers. They were empowered. The workers without buttons were skilled workers. They had to ask permission.

Since many of our volunteers experienced that shift, we need to make sure we treat our volunteers like knowledge workers, not skilled workers. If we change the name from committee to team, but do not give that team decision making authority, the team will not work effectively. Thom is the executive director of an organization. Laura is the team leader for an action team. When Laura approaches Thom with a decision that the team has to make, Thom can handle it one of two ways:

Skill workers way: Thom says about the decision, "Let me think about it, and I'll get back to you." Thom basically has delegated this problem to himself. Not too smart. First, he adds another task on his "to do" list, but more significantly, he tells this team, "Don't act until you talk to me first. I think and you act. You are only skilled workers who do what I tell you what to do." Volunteers don't like this.

Empowered knowledge workers way: Thom says to Laura, "You have significant expertise on your team. Make a decision and act on it. Let me know so I can answer any questions that come up."

This sounds great; however, some of us in the executive director position have had to put back together an organization that had become totally dysfunctional because of empowered teams doing everything except our mission.

How can we empower teams without things going sideways?

First: Appoint a team chair person or a key team member who understands the mission, values and board policies of decisions and actions. Empower this team to think of new creative ways to accomplish the mission, but remember that thinking beyond our mission and values is not the goal.

Second: Develop a communication system. If the team is going to be empowered, reporting is important. It could be as informal as going out to breakfast once a month with the team leader, or much more extensive with written reports.

Bottom Line

It's time we rethink our volunteer program to include teamsóbut not just in name. We cannot just rename the a dysfunctional committee, "the action team" and expect success. We need to empower that team.


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