Difficult Volunteer Behaviors- What’s Behind It and How Do You Deal With It?

by Jen Lobely

As we near Thanksgiving, one of the things I am thankful for is the fact that I don’t have to deal with difficult volunteers on a daily or even weekly basis. Thankfully it is rare that I have to deal with this, but I certainly would be lying if I said I never had to…it’s par for the course when you work with volunteers. After listening to an on-line presentation given by Steve McCurley and reading Handling Problem Volunteers- Real Solutions written by Steve McCurley and Sue Vineyard, I was reminded of some common root causes of such behavior and thought I would share some points that I took away from my learning. Here are four main reasons a volunteer may exhibit challenging behavior:

1. Lack of understanding- it is important for volunteers to know what to do, how to do it and why they need to behave in a certain way. These can be address by orientation, training, and position or role descriptions.

2. Volunteer may have a different view regarding what needs to be done or possibly how it should be done. Their views may conflict with that of the volunteer manager or goals of the volunteer program. This usually is an issue with very experienced volunteers.

3. Many volunteers fear change- they don’t see what could possibly be gained and they clearly have determined there is potential for loss. This is common when a program tries to implement procedural change- a change is what the volunteer is asked to do or a change in the process of how to accomplish a task. If the volunteers are not involved in developing the change, they will not feel connected to the new system- no buy in.

4. Finally, there are obstacles that are beyond our control. It may not be that the volunteer doesn’t have the ability, but that things such as time, resources, personal limitations or something in the environment is getting in the way.

So what’s a volunteer manager to do? A good volunteer manager does not run away from or avoid difficult volunteers. If you don’t stop the behavior, you could be putting your program at risk. I have found the following steps helpful when needing to redirect difficult behavior:

1. Discuss the issue privately with the volunteer. Give them the opportunity to share their viewpoint about what is happening. Be sure to listen for external factors- personal life, work environment, misinformation, bad experience with client, or burnout.

2. Engage in mutual problem solving. Get them to agree a problem exists and then ask the volunteer for ideas on how to solve the problem. Start by asking, “What might OTHERS do to make this situation easier?” Then follow up with the following question: “What can YOU do to improve the situation?” Determine together, based on the conversation what steps will be taken to improve or correct the situation.

3.Agree on a timeline for corrective action on the individual’s part. Let the volunteer know you will look at these points and address how well, from YOUR perception, they are changing in ways that are beneficial to the program.

4. Follow up and recognize achievement if the volunteer has been successful in rectifying their behavior or the problem.

Jen Lobley is a featured blogger and the Extension Educator for Volunteer Development at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

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