Do You Want Your Employees to Feel like Volunteers or Slaves?

Do You Want Your Employees to Feel like Volunteers or Slaves? 150 150 Wally Hauck, PhD, CSP

Do you Want Employees to Feel Like Volunteers or Slaves? 

If you are a leader of a team now, ponder this idea: everyone in your organization is a volunteer.  Would you treat them differently?  Why would you want to treat employees as volunteers and how can you start?  This blog will touch on the answers.

I bet each of us, at some point, has been a volunteer (on a board or team).  It is usually a huge challenge because often only 20-30% of the people do all the work.  The other 70-80% either coast or don’t even bother to show up.  You’re probably thinking, “Well that problem is often true with employees as well” and you would be correct.  Leaders who want to treat employees as volunteers must make two important shifts.  The first shift must be how we think about our leadership responsibilities.  The second change must be how we act as a leader.

Why should we want volunteers?

Treating employees as volunteers is the foundation for creating an engaged workforce. Volunteers feel empowered and feel a part of something important larger than themselves.  Volunteers do tasks because they want to.  Disengaged (slaves) do things because they must (they are bribed or threatened).  Disengaged employees are compliant.  Volunteers put in extra effort because they love what they do.

Volunteers are committed emotionally and intellectually.  The disengaged are controlled by domineering forces either spoken or unspoken.  Engaged (volunteers) employees creates greater profitability, quality customer service, and innovative ideas.  Disengaged employees cause costs to go up.  Study after study shows the benefits of an engaged workforce.  Treating employees as volunteers will lead toward higher engagement, higher profitability, and expanding success in many areas of performance.

During slavery in the United States certain behaviors were prevalent among the slaves. These included the avoidance of work, theft, and an outward defiance of authority. One could interpret these behaviors as demonstrations of resistance for the loss of freedom.  In my experience, these same behaviors are prevalent with disengaged and actively disengaged employees.  My theory is an increase in freedom and autonomy will help eliminate most, or all, of these resistance behaviors.

Shift #1 – Change how we think about our responsibilities

It is not a bigger challenge to manage volunteers it is just different and it requires a shift in thinking and it requires different skills.  The shift is to stop managing people but instead lead them with an environment which encourages self-management.  Volunteers self-manage.  The disengaged (slaves) require management control.

There is an important distinction between self- management and manager-dependent management.  Most organizations have a manager-dependent environment.  Manager-dependent environment encourages employees to wait to receive ideas for improvement from their managers before making any significant changes in performance.  This type of environment creates more fear and less innovation because there is less freedom and less autonomy.  Self-Management increases employee engagement and enables natural feedback mechanisms and autonomy.  This accelerates the decisions and therefore accelerates the ability to adapt to change.

Shift #2 – Change how we behave

Typical managers often put in controls and policies that create compliance.  Leaders of volunteers spend their time helping employees understand the mission, vision, values, and strategy of the organization.  They must also explain how the employee’s responsibilities fit into these and how they can contribute to the achievement of all of those items.  These leaders spend time explaining “why” the work is so important.

Leaders of volunteers spend time helping employees match their skills to the task they hope to perform.  If the task is too difficult they will refuse it because it might embarrass them if they perform poorly.  Conversely, if the task is too easy they get bored.  A leader of volunteers must match the skill of the volunteer or it won’t get done.  A typical manager will use carrots and sticks to attempt to ensure compliance to get the task done regardless of the match of skills with the task.

Typical managers must spend a good deal of time with attorneys to understand how to force accountability.  Managers of volunteers continuously manage trust.  Attorneys are unnecessary in a culture of trust.  The leaders of volunteers must facilitate the removal of barriers to performance.  Typical managers must create new rules when mistakes are found or when jobs remain incomplete.  Typical managers see the person as the root cause of problems.  Leaders of volunteers review the system to remove the barriers that prevent the trusted volunteers from doing their jobs.

Typical managers use performance appraisals and pay for performance policies.  Performance appraisals control behaviors with threats to either future promotional opportunities or future pay (if pay-for-performance is linked to the appraisal).  Leaders must be willing to let go of these addictive policies.  They are inconsistent with a culture of engaged volunteers.

Thinking differently about people

To create an environment of volunteers, leaders must begin to think about employees as unlimited human potential not as human resources.  This potential, when released, can possibly add unlimited value to the organization.   Resources can be used up.  Potential can be tapped as an unlimited supply.  I suggest the Human Resources Department to change its name to the Human Potential Department.

Thinking differently about policies

What happens when people stop performing or stop following the rules?  When this happens, they are telling you “I don’t want to work here anymore.” Accept their decision.  Let them go physically because they have already de-selected mentally.

When you decide to treat employees as volunteers it can be scary because the skills are different and require discipline and effort.  Yet, it is the future.

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