It’s Your Turn to Volunteer

VolunteerHandThere is a debate raging in many of our nation’s high schools about requiring mandatory service projects for seniors. It seems that kids who are forced to “volunteer” for something outside of their sphere of interest are not likely to ever volunteer to do it again. Regardless of the good intentions of educators who in good faith place hands-on work experience within the reach of our youth, mandatory volunteerism is not likely to create a desire to participate in any activity no matter how good it may be for them or the community. The winning side in such a debate is usually that the exposure to real work or community service contributes to a good education… kids don’t get to choose if they want to take English or math either.

Why is there not an equal debate running throughout the minds of business leaders in companies across the nation? The psychology of dealing with volunteer work in high school students is understood by most adults, but when it comes to extending that logic to the grown-up workplace we forget the lessons learned by the down side of forcing extra effort from employees.

  • Clearly Prescribe Expected Standards of Performance – From the now famous movie “Office Space” there was a requirement for the wait staff at Chotchkie’s to wear a minimum of fifteen pieces of flair on their uniforms. The manager challenged Joanna (played by Jennifer Aniston)* for only wearing the minimum. Life imitating art: Do we encourage mediocrity by defining only a minimum standard? If the expectation is for employees to go the extra mile, why don’t we just say so and tell them how far?
  • Reward Employees That Perform Extraordinarily – Unlike the kids soccer team where everybody gets a trophy, simply giving blanket awards to everyone on a team dilutes the importance of the reward. This is the grown-up world where truly outstanding performance must be acknowledged and rewarded. Nobody should be given a special reward for simply doing their jobs. Unless somebody is recognized as exceptional then nobody is exceptional.
  • Encourage Individuality While Promoting Teamwork – In one case study, an engineer that at one time had headed the company safety committee reported that the responsibility was “taken over by HR.” Afterward it became a rotating responsibility even if the employees that were asked to participate had no technical knowledge or desire to serve. There are occasions that would demand a look into employee’s leadership development needs, but to blindly make arbitrary assignments makes it a chore rather than service.
  • Listen for Requests for Employee Participation – The best ideas do not always come from the top boxes on the org chart. Often leaders become insulated from the finer points of day-to-day operations and will miss opportunities to improve productivity. Identifying passionate desire to improve the company by allowing ideas to bubble up from within promotes true volunteerism and encourages a collaborative culture.

Mandatory volunteerism is an oxymoron. Laziness of management sometimes appoints people to perform irrelevant unimportant or unrelated acts rather than do the work of determining the job that must be done and facilitating the best method of performance. Sometimes allowing excellence is better than demanding it. That involves letting go of a certain amount of control to encourage genuine volunteerism and barrier breaking innovation.

* Thirty-seven pieces of flair:

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Image credit: buchachon / 123RF Stock Photo