Another ridiculously practical reason for volunteer managers to push back on pushback

There’s some risk involved when staff push back on engaging volunteers. Here’s how to take that particular target off of your head.

A couple of weeks ago, I received the most interesting response from a Twenty Hats reader.  It was about a post on how to deal with resistance from co-workers when you want to launch a new project.

The reader said:

“I see the recent [post] on how to deal with staff pushback on volunteer initiatives as a risk management issue.”

A risk management issue? That’s a thought-provoking idea. I had never considered pushback as having anything to do with safety or liability. To me managing staff resistance seemed more a question of stepping up interpersonal skill-building and treating our goals as an opportunity to grow as leaders.

But if anyone understands the connection between running a volunteer program and risk, it’s this reader. He is William Henry of Volunteers Insurance Service Association, Inc. The company has served nonprofits for over 40 years by providing insurance for volunteers. They also help nonprofits find other cost-saving products and services.

I got on the phone to talk with William and get his perspective on the question. It turns out that the risk is not always from the pushback – the risk often comes from avoiding the pushback and not addressing the problems.

Let’s say staff are reluctant to take on the training you know they need to properly supervise volunteers. Without the training, important expectations will not get communicated, and volunteers will not know how to handle difficult problems.

Look at these examples – real scenarios that William shared:

  • A volunteer is pushing a wheel chair too fast. The client in the chair puts his legs out to slow the chair down, falls out, and injures himself. That’s an accident that could have been avoided had the staff been willing to train the volunteer on how to care for someone in a wheel chair.
  • A volunteer works with an agitated client who is so provoking that the volunteer ends up losing control and striking the client. In this situation, staff need to train the volunteer on how to de-escalate a volatile situation or blow off steam.
  • A reliable volunteer quits in frustration because many times she has been taken off a project she was told is a priority, and asked to do something else –  sometimes without the volunteer manager’s knowledge. This is an example of the risk that goes with regarding volunteers as “community property,” and permitting a different degree of supervision than paid staff have.

This third example points to an underlying issue, and that’s the standards that need to be in place to prevent these types of mishaps.  Whenever a co-worker seems to stand in the way of your goals, it’s more than likely that your program needs a policy or procedure to address the issue.

In other words, staff pushback against policies and procedures generates more than resentment, it creates an environment with potentially serious consequences for everyone involved: clients, volunteers, and employees.

Does all of this mean that you need to pushback against the pushback? No – certainly not in a dominating or confrontational way. That’s a recipe for greater opposition.  Instead, treat the risk management concerns as one more reason that your projects are necessary, and that your ability to achieve buy-in is essential.  Your instincts are good – time to act on them.

Want to become a master at managing pushback? My Six Principles of Buy-In will take your influencing skills even further. Email me to receive a handout about the principles and a next steps worksheet – and I’ll add you to the Twenty Hats mailing list.

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