Developing good role descriptions is a lost art

The demands to constantly find new volunteers leave Volunteer Managers little time to think clearly and carefully, before recruitment starts, about the actual work those volunteers will be doing.

“Attempting to recruit volunteers without first having developed worthwhile positions to offer them is equivalent to attempting to sell a product to people who have no need for it.  It can be done, but the buyer may well become unhappy later.  And when volunteers are unhappy, they don’t stay around long.” – McCurley, Lynch and Jackson, The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook (2012)

New research might help

I was interested to read an article from Stanford Business School in the USA, “Beware of Workplace Policies That Kill Motivation”. It draws on recent research that highlights how subtle changes in the language of employment contracts can have a powerful psychological effect and influence on a range of ways employees behave. Significantly, to quote the article:

“The research found that designing a contract to specifically curb an employee’s counterproductive behaviors can, ultimately, exacerbate counterproductive behaviors”.

Although the article focuses on paid staff and the language of contracts, the lessons are equally applicable to volunteer management.

What’s wrong with volunteer role descriptions?

Role descriptions for volunteers are typically controlling documents, instructing volunteers what to do and not do, giving little scope for the volunteer to bring their own skills, talents, experience and ideas to the work. As one volunteer once said to me, “The problem with volunteer management is that it has become all about what volunteers can’t do, not what they can do”.

Such a controlling approach to volunteer management is often driven by misconceptions of volunteers being well meaning but unreliable amateurs, people who need controlling if we are to avoid problem behaviour and poor performance. Yet, the research highlighted by Stanford suggests approaching volunteer roles like this this actually risks making problem behaviour and poor performance more likely.

Three ways forward

How then, can we construct and articulate roles for volunteers that address anxieties about the competence and reliability of volunteers but also empowering them to be creative, autonomous and successful?

To answer that question I have copied three key quotes from the article and outlined my thoughts about the application of these to volunteer management.

1 – Mindset shift

“From management’s perspective, contracts are too often used merely as a way to exercise control over the workforce. But management could also use contracts to motivate employees. Our research explains how employers can achieve both ends with the same tool.”

My thoughts: A mindset shift is needed. We need to challenge the belief we and others may hold about volunteer competence and risk. Competence does not relate to how much someone gets paid. Volunteers, properly recruited and trained, present no more of a risk that paid staff and so do not need to be controlled more than anyone else. In fact, as motivation is such a key part of volunteer management, we must find ways to make our volunteer roles more meaningful and motivating, and that means being less controlling.

2 – Be more vague (sometimes)

“Across nine different experiments, the researchers found that workers whose contracts contained more general language spent more time on their tasks, generated more original ideas, and were more likely to cooperate with others. They were also more likely to return for future work with the same employer, underscoring the durable and long-lasting nature of the effect.”

My thoughts: If we want to retain volunteers, if we want them to achieve more, generate new ideas, be more motivated and work well with others, then we need to use more general language in our role descriptions. This could mean suggesting tasks they could do rather than telling them exactly what to do. It could also mean focusing more on the results we want them to achieve and less on the specific tasks we want them to perform.

3 – When to not be so vague

“Typically, contracts contain both “control” and “coordination” clauses. Control clauses tell you what you can and can’t do at work, while coordination clauses help you align expectations. In other words, coordination clauses let workers know what employers want, while control clauses tell them how to do it and, quite often, what not to do.

“An example of a control clause run amok can be found in a 2003 Department of Defense employment contract for pastry bakers. The 26-page document specifies the number of chocolate chips each cookie should contain, but nowhere does it mention that the cookies should taste good.”

“The key is to remember that greater specificity can be helpful in coordination clauses by making sure both sides are on the same page, but it can backfire in control clauses by dampening an employee’s feelings of autonomy.”

My thoughts: If we are going to use more general language, then we should do so with control clauses. Being too prescriptive when telling people what we want them to do reduces autonomy and motivation. On the other hand, being specific in the language we use in co-ordination clauses can enhance motivation & clarify agreement between the volunteer and their manager about what the volunteer is expected to achieve.

In other words, making the results we want volunteers to achieve really tangible and being less prescriptive when explaining the tasks we want volunteers to perform would both be good steps to take.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your reflections on this point and the article that inspired it. Please leave a comment below.

Can we help?

If you’d like to find out how Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd can help your organisation develop meaningful and motivating roles for your volunteers then please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you and work with you to engage and inspire your people to bring about change.

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5 thoughts on “Three thoughts on how the language we use in volunteer role descriptions really matters

  1. Rob, thank you for articulating these points. Especially for the ‘boomers’ and our younger volunteers, really paying attention to where we are specific and vague can make all the difference for them to really feel engaged with some level of control. We must always be vigilant to ways descriptions can be interpreted so that there’s no misunderstanding. As always, something to think about and how can we take just one small step to make this shift? I believe it’s one of those small changes that can add up over time to a positive shift.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In my last 5 years as Director of volunteer services, I have done exactly what you are describing. I have been creating volunteer title and roles that are more general. If we as volunteer managers create restrictive roles, how are we role modeling trust or investment for volunteers and staff? How can we encourage investment in our volunteers if we are limiting their skills & talents by over bearing volunteer positions? Great article that made me think. Thanks. I hope it’s ok to let you know there is a spelling error. The word would was spelled as wold. It is above theme What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article Rob. I think there’s often work to be done with the staff team too, so that they understand that the role description isn’t just a list of do’s and don’ts and to work with anxieties that people might have about volunteer roles being less prescriptive. I also wonder about the point in the volunteer recruitment journey where role descriptions are used – those that focus heavily on “rules” over “impact” probably have a detrimental effect on volunteer recruitment.

    Liked by 1 person

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