How to Make Friends with Older Volunteers and Influence Them, Too

Do older volunteers challenge your feedback?  Here are three tips for millennial volunteer managers

Supervising older volunteers - Twenty HatsOne of the advantages of working alongside volunteer engagement pros is that I get to pick up on common concerns within our profession.  Recently one of these all-too-common themes emerged when I facilitated a session on supervising volunteers.

Some of my students − very capable volunteer managers in their twenties, shared how difficult it was to work with volunteers who were a generation or two older than themselves.  They talked about their discomfort in giving direction to very experienced volunteers who sometimes challenged their feedback.  They found the supervision process discouraging because the older volunteers did not seem to take them seriously.

That got me to wondering: perhaps this issue has very little to do with the volunteers.  Perhaps, if you are a lot younger than your volunteers, you need to take yourself more seriously.

Think about it. 

Any volunteer who comes into your program and undergoes screening and training has implicitly agreed to abide by your program’s rules.  That gives you plenty of authority to provide direction when you need to – even if you are several decades younger than the volunteer.

That also means that the volunteer who plays the “I’ve been doing this for more years than you’ve been on the planet” card does not trump your say-so.  There are skillful ways to manage these types of personalities. Here are three tips:

Get comfortable with your own authority.  It does not matter what age you are.  If you are the boss, then you hold power. Start by reviewing the many forms of power that you possess, including legitimate power to over-rule an experienced volunteer. And remember that being a leader inevitably means that some of your followers will not be happy with your decisions.

Screen out the trouble-makers. This is one of the reasons that I am such a big fan of behavior-based interviewing.  Asking behavior-based questions helps you identify the volunteers who are most likely to take feedback without giving you a lot of grief.  You might even want to ask a question like, “Tell me about a time you had to take direction from a much younger person.”  The response will give you lots of intel on how this person will conduct themselves as a volunteer.

Remember Gottman’s Ratio. Psychologist John Gottman is well-known for demonstrating that married couples who maintain a ratio of five positive comments to one negative comment are more likely to stay married. That ratio applies to just about any human relationship − and it’s essential in supervision situations.  If you feel uncomfortable giving negative feedback to an older volunteer, start observing how you communicate.  If most of your encounters are positive, you are safe to share the negatives when it’s necessary.

It may not always seem this way, but managing older volunteers is a huge opportunity to build your leadership skills. Treat yourself as the authority you are when you provide direction.  When you see your volunteers responding and your confidence grows, you will start to wonder why you ever thought this was a problem at all.

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When older volunteers don’t seem to take your supervision seriously, it’s time to ramp up your authority, http://twentyhats.com/?p=2069

2 thoughts on “How to Make Friends with Older Volunteers and Influence Them, Too

  1. Tobi Johnson

    Great post, Elisa.

    Having worked with a number of older volunteers over the past decade or so, both as program staff and later in my consulting practice, I have one more tip to add:

    — Look at your “troublemakers” as a gift. Certainly, if they are disregarding program guidelines or mistreating you or others, then it’s time for some progressive discipline. BUT, if they are challenging your decisions or complaining about policies and procedures, it’s time to get them MORE involved, not less.

    You are the beneficiary of all of the decades of life experience, training, and professional development activities of your older volunteers. Many have held positions of influence and have graduated from many a school of hard knocks. Honor that and tap it.

    While some may not be as “politic” as you’d like them to be, they can be a tremendous asset. Invite them to be part of an advisory team. Promote them to a leadership role. Have them lead a strategic planning or problem solving session. If they exhibit behaviors that are counterproductive, set team norms together, and have a candid conversation about the behavior and what you’d like to see changed.

    Although your “naysayers” may be a pain in the rear end, you need some “conscientious objectors” to help you see the weaknesses in your strategy. If you take them seriously, they may even change their stripes to become your biggest fans.

    1. Elisa Kosarin Post author

      Hi, Tobi! I absolutely agree: older volunteers are a tremendous asset to any program — and learning how to manage the “naysayers” and engage them more fully is an opportunity for leadership growth. Thank you stressing the strengths that all volunteers bring to a program, even when we find them challenging to supervise.

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