22 11 2010

Whether you work in a sector where all or the majority of the work is done by a paid workforce or in a sector where the majority of the work is delivered by volunteers, this is a vital question if you are ultimately to be successful.

A couple of weeks ago I was driving along the A27 in Sussex and had tuned the car radio to listen to Danny Pike on BBC Sussex, for no other reason than to hear the man who would be MC at an event we were organising that evening.

Danny Pike (with Katharine Merry)

As I drove I listened to a debate on how volunteers could fill a possible gap in care provision for the elderly, a gap likely to come about following Government cuts and the ensuing pressure on the purse strings in both PCTs and local authorities.

As is always the case in this kind of debate, there were many different views given, some informed others less so, but two threads that did emerge strongly were; why should volunteers fill the breach and, if they did, why would they continue to do so?

The answer is relevant whether you pay your workforce or you rely on their goodwill – because they are genuinely committed to the cause.

The issue is highlighted when we are discussing volunteer workforces because, without commitment there is little other reason for the volunteer to continue to provide the service/carry out the task. That said the lessons learnt when ‘designing in’ commitment from a volunteer workforce are just as relevant when applied to a paid workforce. True, they might not simply walk away because they rely on the wage being paid to them but their productivity may be lower and they are highly unlikely to go the extra mile (or even inch) when it comes to quality of work.

While we would not recommend that you hand the running of your company over to the staff, effectively consulting with your staff can help you learn lessons and implement (sometimes very small) changes which will measurably improve efficiency and effectiveness.

In short, by consulting we show we value our workforce and engender an atmosphere of commitment to a shared cause over one of compliant acceptance of direction.

“But of course we consult” I hear you cry. And I don’t doubt you. The problem is that the consultation process chosen is often the easiest, the one involving little effort, little time and (here’s that word again) little commitment. If you aren’t committed to listening, don’t expect your workforce to become committed to your cause (because it won’t be theirs).

Ask yourself four questions:

  • In what ways do we consult?
  • Do we consult with everyone we should?
  • Do we make being consulted as easy as possible?
  • Are our consultations as inclusive and accessible as we claim (or like to think)?

Often, at this point, we hear someone speak up indignantly (especially with organisations who rely on volunteers), “but of course we consult!”

However, when examined more closely the scenario is usually one of the mountain having to go to Mohammed, by which I mean the consultation is only as accurate and only as inclusive as those who could get to a one-off ‘briefing’. I know of one third sector organisation which conducted a ‘national consultation’ with volunteers by invitation only, on a weekday afternoon in central London and without offering expenses!

Are your consultations really inclusive and accessible?

Which leads me to the kind of excuses which are often offered up once an organisation realises that its previous consultation attempts have fallen short of the ideal:

  • We don’t have time, we talk to everyone we can.
  • We don’t have the resources, we do as well as we can.
  • We avoid some people because we know they will disagree or complain.
  • Of course we ask a few people but we know best.

This attitude (or attitudes), this lack of consultation excludes the opportunity to develop commitment and will inevitably lead to a compliant workforce. What does this mean?

Compliance excludes the sense of excitement and commitment developed in those who feel they have been included, whose opinion matters, where proper consultation creates a sense of shared vision and, with it, commitment. On top of that, saying “let’s do this together” or “your opinion matters to me” builds resilience during times of change and a commitment to partnership working.

By consulting fully and properly you create a sense of shared ‘ownership’, a shared and committed view of a future in which the vision isn’t ‘yours’ or ‘mine’ but ‘ours’, a vision we are all committed to seeing through.

Some of the differences between a committed and a compliant employee:

“I do these things because I believe in them” “I do these things because I’m paid to do them”
“I will do my utmost to make things work” “If it doesn’t work it’s someone else’s problem”
“I want to be involved” I’m only involved because you pay me”
“It’s our shared vision” “It’s the bosses vision, not mine”
“I want to stay with the Company” “I stay because I have to but as soon as I can, I’m off”
“I’m happy” “I’m not”

And between a committed volunteer and a compliant volunteer (using a sporting NGB as the example):

“I do these things because I love the sport” “I don’t have to do these things if I don’t believe in them”
“I’ll commit my own time to help make it work” “Sorry, I don’t have time, fix it yourself”
“I want to be involved” “I’m never asked anything. I’m not involved”
“I share the NGB’s vision, in fact I contributed!” “The NGB has a vision?”
“I want to work with the NGB and enjoy doing so” “I don’t want to work with the NGB so I won’t”
“I’m happy” “I’m off! See you!”

And so, back to Danny Pike’s show on BBC Sussex and the debate about volunteers being used to plug gaps vacated by paid services. The fact is that over the last few years many sports have unknowingly been acting as testing grounds for what happens when volunteer workforces are assumed and taken for granted.

Sport relies heavily on the work of committed, unpaid volunteers to make things happen. And yet, without proper consultation many of these volunteers have become compliant. It is then only a short step for compliant volunteers to become ‘complaint’ volunteers and then, as feelings of isolation and of being taken for granted set in they become non-cooperative volunteers and, in extreme cases, ex-volunteers and the delivery of sport is considerably weakened. (In sport it is more likely they continue to work with their club but refuse to work with the NGB).

Isn’t that a high price to pay for cutting a few corners when consulting?

Looking again at the excuses often given for cutting those corners offers up some questions for future consultations:

  • Does the mountain have to come to Mohammed?
  • You don’t have time? How much less time will you have without a committed workforce?
  • You don’t have resources? How much thinner will they be spread if you lose some or all of your volunteers?
  • You avoid some because you know they will disagree or complain? Why do you think that is?
  • Of course, you only ask a few people because you know best. Do you?

The lessons above can be applied to paid and unpaid workers alike however, in the voluntary sector where there is not even a wage to hold the compliant and in an economy which looks likely to become more reliant on the voluntary sector isn’t it time the (so-called) professionals started doing things properly?

If this blog has been of interest you might also be interested in ‘Partnership Working – Defining what it is.’

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, 2010

Twitter @cowanglobal



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