The Insights of Leading Volunteers and Peers

Leading peers and volunteers can be daunting for many people because it’s a much tougher ‘audience’. However, if you turn it around and apply the insights of managing volunteers and peers to your regular role, you may find you get even better results.

For most people, leadership involves a vision, a group of people and a means to move toward that vision. And for most people in a leadership role, that means of moving toward the vision is based on some kind of authority, persuasion and managerial skill. For example, if I want to change my organizational structure so that we can become better organized, the means of moving toward that new structure requires some authority to decide on the new structure, influencing others around you to go through the change, and the managerial skills to orchestrate the change.

For a business context, authority is usually clear and this may go a long way in helping you to influence others, i. e., the boss can call the shots. However, leading volunteers or a peer group presents a slightly different set of challenges. My first two leadership roles were managing a group of my peers though significant organizational development changes, and managing a volunteer team of competitive athletes through the development of new, highly political, race rules for the sport. In theory I had ‘authority’, but in reality it could easily be undermined. In my experience, peers are less tolerant of direct leadership styles (unless they can see that the situation absolutely demands it), and volunteers will stick with you so long as they are happy and motivated. If the ‘vibe’ doesn’t suit them any more, they can be right out the door.

This then leads to the issue of persuasion. In a position with clearer authority, it’s much easier to ask someone to do an undesirable task because usually they are getting paid to do that. But when it’s volunteers, there is something else at stake. If you don’t tread carefully, you’ll be the only one left! And if it’s peers, if you don’t tread carefully, you won’t have any friends left. Therefore, the situation offers an excellent opportunity to fine tune your persuasion skills.

Research suggests that personal power bases (expert power and referent power) are more effective than formal power bases (coercive power, reward power, and legitimate power) (1). Therefore this means that being seen as an admirable person, using rational persuasion and/or being an expert in your field is what will help you to influence others.

When I was in charge of a team of athletes, I was far from an expert in the field, therefore I had to rely on either rational persuasion, or referent power by gaining their trust for what I stood for as a person. I decided to take a highly consultative approach as we contributed to the development of new race rules for the sport. I involved everybody in the decisions and acted like a facilitator rather than a decision maker. This very quickly built trust. But also, it soon became apparent that not everybody cared about every decision. Therefore I gave people the option to ‘opt in’ and then determined whether they just wanted to be informed along the way, or an active part of the discussion. In many ways, not being an expert was my strength because it meant I relied on the others to help guide the decision making. This resulted in the trust that I wouldn’t ‘shoot from the hip’ with my decision making. Rather they knew that I would come to the experts and get advice.

Similarly, when I led a group of peers through organizational development changes, I had slightly more expert power due to my tenure in the role. Because the nature of what we were doing was a highly logical exercise, I relied heavily on rational persuasion to help guide the development of processes, knowledge handbooks and training programs within our team. That I didn’t need to rely on any of my formal power bases kept the friendships running smoothly.

Upon reflection, these early leadership experiences were significant in forming my leadership style today. Whilst I have the ability to employ more directive tactics where required, I often find myself in charge of a group of experts and naturally find myself using personal power bases to lead those teams with good effect. There are no uncomfortable inferior/superior power dynamics because I genuinely appreciate my staff and they genuinely appreciate me. It’s an honest exchange based on rationality and trust, just like my days of managing volunteers and peers.

1 – 2011, Robbins, Judge, Millet, Boyle, Organisational Behaviour  p370, Pearson Australia

Do you treat people differently or the same?

The Lost Trail

Navigating the line between the individual and the group can be challenging

One of the challenges I faced when coming to understand issues of prejudice was: where is the line between the individual and the group? When I was studying engineering, the other women and I didn’t like to be singled out from the men and instead wanted to be treated ‘just like everybody else’ but at the same time would attend women in engineering events. So, is this hypocrisy? Where is the line? This then begs the question, as leaders, how do we treat others when diversity is at play?

The secret to answering a question like this, lies with evaluating the underlying power structures i.e who has influence over whom, directly or indirectly?

At the most basic level, we all want to be seen as individuals, without prejudice. I am a unique person with a unique experience of the world. I have been influenced by many different cultures (work, country, family etc) to varying extents and don’t like leaders to decide what is best for me based on on stereotypes. I want a leader to give me choice and/or ask my opinion if they don’t know me well. At the same time, we are a part of groups that often sit within a privilege priority order and it is important to acknowledge where we and other people sit within that artificially constructed model of importance. These are two distinct issues that are often mixed together.

For example, women are grossly under represented in the engineering profession. This means that on a systemic level it makes perfect sense for leaders to advocate and promote ‘women in engineering’ events because they go a small way to help support women continuing in the profession despite the obstacles. But at the individual level, women and men have the right to be treated as individuals without prejudice.

I remember having one University professor who was not used to teaching women and would get very flustered trying to make sure that he didn’t get himself in trouble by saying the wrong thing in front of us. Of course that only made matters worse because we felt singled out and would prefer that he simply saw us as human beings like everyone else in the room. Why would I be more offended because of my gender? If someone is being prejudice, then that is ultimately a problem for everybody. The irony was that his efforts to be more ‘gentlemanly’ made the situation feel like ‘there are the engineers [i.e. men]’ and ‘there are the women [ie not engineers]. And hence the group privilege order revealed itself.

Therefore it is not hypocrisy to both want to be seen as an individual and also reap the benefits of systems or events that re-balance the power for disadvantaged groups. Good leaders know that people want to be treated as a human beings foremost, i.e. with the same dignity and respect that we all deserve.  At the same time people want to have their diversity and difference recognised as something unique that they can bring to the table so that everybody can work together in coordinated cooperation. The equality movement ensures that systemic disadvantage takes care of groups and the diversity movement tries to ensure that we are respected for our individual diversity and uniqueness. Thus leaders can navigate the tension between individuals and groups when viewing the problem as two distinct issues.

The Secret to Developing Cooperative Leadership

I’m sure that most of us have had a boss at some point in our lives whom we didn’t like. I immediately think of the ones who pre-judged me, or who treated the staff like we were stupid, or who simply wouldn’t listen to the subject matter experts because they thought that leadership meant bossing people around. Since there is a wealth of books on leadership and management, a highly profitable market, it follows that there is a scarcity of good bosses. That organisations are prepared to pay good money for leadership development is also, I believe, an indication that many organisations recognise the disastrous financial and social impacts of bad bosses.

Despite the relatively recent leap in training opportunities and growth in the field of knowledge regarding leadership, we still have organisations that cultivate terrible bosses. Why is that? I have a theory and I’m going to use Causal Layered Analysis by Sohail Inayatullah to identify where I think the problem lies and what we can do about it. It’s a little bit heady, but please bear with me because the insights can be revolutionary for your leadership development.

CLA iceberg

Causal layered analysis implies that with any situation, there are multiple layers to reality which need to be understood if you want to effect lasting change.

The first layer is called the litany. This is usually a superficial understanding or statement of the problem, often the visible aspects, newspaper headlines, and metrics. For our leadership example, it might include, the financial cost of bad leadership, any of the newspaper headlines during the collapse of Enron, high employee turnover rates, stress related health issues, or the ratings that people give to their CEOs on

What is the litany in your organisation? What are the tangible positive and negative impacts of your leadership style on your staff and performance outcomes?

The next layer provides a systemic and often more academic understanding of the structures that lead to the visible outcomes in the litany. Systemic causes of poor leadership and/or performance outcomes might include hyper-competitive cultures, lack of trust, understaffing, systemic prejudice, lack of equity and diversity training, insufficient leadership development, etc. Most organisations will try to resolves issues at this level and whilst it might be more impactful than a band-aid fix at the level of litany, it might not be long before problems start to creep back again.

For example, in one organisation I worked for, I was called in to advise a manager who was giving childless staff on his team greater travel opportunities than those with children. With all good intentions, he thought he was doing the right thing by allowing the parents to spend more time with their kids but this led to poor team work, jealousy and injustice. The underlying systemic cause was a lack of leadership development to help him tangibly understand his obligations for fairness by giving people the right to make those choices themselves.

What systems and policies are in place in your environment? Do they promote healthy teamwork? Do they promote an environment where people can get along and respect each other despite their differences? What are you doing to improve these systems?

The third layer is that of worldview. Here the underpinning philosophies and values are examined for the ways in which they might be contributing to the problem. For example, a friend of mine noticed that her boss would ask her about her children (but never her work) and would ask male members of the team about their work (but never their children). This subtle use of language and conversation implies that he has an inequitable worldview that values women only looking after children and men only being at work. From a leadership standpoint, this layer represents the first layer that each of us can make impactful change in our leadership style and one which organisations can align their values with.

For leadership to be cooperative, a cooperative worldview must be present in this third layer. In my experience, terrible bosses typically have a ‘subordinated cooperation‘ worldview whereby they see their relationship with you as akin to master/slave, superior/inferior, or perhaps powerful/powerless. By contrast, ‘coordinated cooperation‘ recognises that whilst we may not be the same, our diversity enriches us and that we can come together and work with mutual respect, no matter your authority or position within an organisation. If organisations do not make changes at this layer, then no matter how many systemic solutions they find, an underlying worldview of subordinated cooperation will always lead to bad bosses and outcomes.

The fourth and most powerful layer of reality/change is that of metaphor/myth which describes how a problem or culture feels. Metaphor and story are deeply connected with culture and vision and can effect long lasting change. For example in the United States many people believe in ‘The American Dream’, or in Australia, ‘The Lucky Country’ which arouses an emotional reaction that goes well beyond a clinical depiction of vision. The emotive nature of it means that it often bypasses the rational brain, allowing for deeper change at a ‘gut’ level. This is also part of the reason why organisational identity is so hard to change through rational persuasion. You need to inspire people through story and imagination so that it sinks in deep.

Metaphors for leadership – Seagull manager: flies in, makes a lot of noise, poops on everything and then steals all the good chips.

Whilst an organisation may implement a program to inspire a new worldview (the third layer), culture eats strategy for breakfast and myth/metaphor will always win. For example, if an organisation has an ‘eat your young’ culture or metaphor, cooperative leadership will be next to impossible to establish. Instead, a ‘nurture your young’ metaphor will be needed to support a cooperative leadership culture. Efforts can be focused on changing the underlying metaphor through more ‘right brain’ techniques such as the telling of organisational stories, neuro-marketing techniques, and images that communicate a new vision by symbolic means.

Thus the secret to a cooperative leadership culture lies in the metaphor/myth of an organisation and what it values. Ultimately this comes back to the leader’s ability to stand up for what they believe in, despite the culturally accepted practices around them. Do you see your employees as minions who carry out your every command? Or do you see people as your equal whereby despite your outward role differences, you are like a bird flapping its two wings (e.g., managers vs. employees) in coordinated cooperation?