How a Puzzle Held a Clue to My Volunteer Management Decisions

What happens when we make hasty decisions?  I once had a five-year reminder.

Reactivity and Volunteer Managers - Twenty HatsOne time when I was fairly new to volunteer training, our Executive Director took a meeting with one of our volunteers. This person was an experienced corporate trainer and she had one objection to our training program: she thought we did not do a good job of showing the material in context. She suggested that we create a big jigsaw puzzle which would be assembled piece by piece at each training session to show how everything fit together.

It was an intriguing idea and my boss asked me to make the puzzle happen.  With the next training beginning in a matter of weeks, I jumped into action-mode, got on the phone with a graphic designer, worked up a puzzle, got it approved, and arranged to have it fabricated and mounted it to the wall of the training room.

The Problem?

In my haste to meet my boss’s request, I had failed to notice that the puzzle lacked a picture: when you put the pieces together, it did not make a recognizable whole out of the parts.

That puzzle remained on the wall of our training room for a good five years, a daily reminder of and a great metaphor for the consequences of reactivity.

A puzzle without a picture was a great metaphor for making a reactive decision
A puzzle without a picture was a great metaphor for making a reactive decision

Reactive decision-making is not limited to the volunteer management world.  If you run a search on the word, you will see if applies to just about every possible human endeavor.

And reactive behavior is important in moments of crisis, when we need to react immediately. It’s the fight or flight part of our brain taking action when our safety is at risk.

But just like the hurried jigsaw puzzle, a reactive action may lead to a solution that does not serve you very well.

Making the Shift

It’s easy to get sucked into reactivity, especially when everyone around you seems to operate the same way. But it’s possible to manage your reactions, especially if you make the conscious choice to notice how you make decisions and try something new.

The first step towards proactive behavior is a “time out” to process a new approach.  It’s why I always create space in the services I offer for self-reflection, and a big reason why my clients see progress towards their goals.

  • Take Navara, who attended my spring retreat and realized that she had the power to educate  her program’s leadership on the essential role of volunteers.
  • Or Karen, who had wanted for years to initiate a staff training on volunteer engagement and used her coaching time to develop a plan  and make that training happen.
  • Or Amy, who explored reactivity in my leadership skills course and simply decided to close her office door whenever she had a big project to work on.

I have a tool for tracking reactivity. Try it!

If you wonder how reactivity affects your own work, try my Reactivity Tracker for one week.  It’s a simple worksheet that helps you understand and think through situations that trigger you.  Like my clients, you may find that a little reflection is a boost in leading your volunteer program.

Email me for the tracker and I will add you to my mailing list for more practical skill-builders.

p.s. There is a wonderful article about reactivity by Meridian Swift in Volume XVI, Issue 1, of e-Volunteerism.  Check it out!

Tweet this post!  If you agree with my POV, feel free to share the following message:

Your decision-making may help or hinder your volunteer leadership,


  • As usual you are right on the mark. I used to use puzzles in my training and team building meetings with child care professionals. One time during a team building I gave them each a puzzle piece, asked them to decorate it, and then at the meeting we put the puzzle together face down, only looking at the beauty of our creation when it was together. It was rather amazing how strengths and beauty came out in that puzzle.

    • What a great idea for a training activity, Marty. I love the idea that the puzzle identified volunteer strengths and made a whole that was beautiful. Yet another metaphor for the power of volunteering!

  • This is a great reminder Elisa, to watch out for reactive behavior, especially hasty behavior. Time out reflection is a great way to gather thoughts, plan actions and create a big picture scenario. Too often, volunteer managers, due to their chaotic and busy days don’t feel like they have the time to think, but we have to make the time in order to be proactive and productive.

    • Thanks, Meridian! I agree that it’s often a challenge to work in the reflection time in a busy nonprofit, but the commitment is totally worth it. And the decision to stake out that kind of time is a sign of leadership.

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