The ambivalent curse of ‘being volunteered’

This is a rather common phenomenon in meetings – whether face-to-face or online for that matter:

An action point emerges, responsibilities are sought, no one directly jumps on it, eventually someone suggests one particular person to undertake that action; and usually, other people in the group mumble, nod or clap in agreement to that idea.

…obviously it doesn’t need to be so dramatic as this.

In our meeting context, what happens in our minds is rather:

  • Action assigned. Check! [Everyone is happy]
  • I’m out of the hook [most people think]!
  • Geez, I got caught (yet again?)! [thinks the freshly volunteered task-owner].

What is really happening? What are the implications?

Being volunteered is of course not very nice, as the image above shows. But beyond that obvious ‘missed opportunity’ of having said no etc., a number of things are actually playing out that make this volunteered business more ambivalent than it first seems at face value.

Volunteering to do what?

Anything, though the most typical tasks being delegated in a meeting are around taking notes, reporting, rapporteuring, sometimes chairing, sometimes time-keeping. Sometimes it’s about finishing a piece of work from the group after the meeting and I’ve witnessed in my life an occurrence or two when that was volunteered to people who were not even in the room!

Who gets volunteered?

Well, in my experience, typically, it’s younger people, and women. Add intersectionality to this and you would get young women being *very* likely to be volunteered. Except for chairing, when in many cases and groups it goes to the person with most chips on their shoulders, or more power as recognised by their peers, or more expertise in a given subject, or just because of patriarchal tradition it ends up being a senior guy. Not very process-literate if you ask me, as what you need is someone who fits the bill: someone with facilitation skills for chairing, someone with good writing for documenting, someone with good synthesis and public speaking skills for rapporteuring, and just anyone with a watch for time keeping…

Who volunteers others?

I have not documented this thoroughly but my (probably biased) perception is that it’s the photographic ‘negative’ picture of those chosen: the entitled, seemingly powerful, often white, men. They don’t have to be the most powerful but often they are quite comfortable in the group, don’t need to assert their authority, and feel, as a result, entitled to play around with others as if no one would question their natural good sense and extraordinary intelligence…

When no volunteer shows up

The scenario above is often made starker in break out groups when the group is instructed to find a volunteer to start with, and no one addresses that question at the start because it’s not a usual, nor pleasant conversation to have (despite how useful and important it is). What usually happens then is that at the end of the breakout time, in the rush of reporting back, the befuddled group tends to have its most entitled figure give the task to the least empowered person in the group. Sometimes it’s worse and everyone’s embarrassed not to have a volunteer and not to want to volunteer last minute either. That usually denotes a bad group dynamics meaning no one takes charge for either the process or the content.

What if being volunteered is being given power?

What people often don’t realise is that actually, taking notes, reporting back, chairing are all exercises of power. It can be so in a negative (corrupting) sense as you can hold the space and decide to slightly hijack peoples’ opinions to plant your own ideas and words and hope others in the group won’t stand up to your version of the facts. But it’s in a positive light also an exercise of collective power where you are holding a piece of your group’s process and reinforcing the trust and group’s collaborative muscle. So there comes some ambivalence: are you being tasked because you’re powerless or will you use this new power that is invested in you? Will you use it to your own advantage or to everyone’s?

Volunteering: the key to a better experience?

What most people don’t realise, is that instead of seeing volunteering as a drag, they should see it as an opportunity. An opportunity to be awake, active, engaged, present, listening, working with your group. You invest yourself in the gathering and as a result you tend to also emerge with a better experience of the gathering because you’ve partly made it yours. This is SOOO much better than coming to ‘consume’ an event. Especially if the event is not very participatory. So remember that most striking ambivalence: volunteering is a blessing disguised as a curse.

What should a facilitator do about this business of people being volunteered?

If you’re holding the space -whether online or face-to-face- for the entire group, what should you do? Watch it and let it be? Point to it and let it be? Intervene mildly to make it more ‘fair’? Downright assign volunteers on the spot? I don’t think there’s a readymade answer to this, it depends on your style and on the context. This is what my friends from Community At Work refer to as the ‘Accommodator to influencer continuum’. I tend to let groups deal with their own dynamics, but usually point to some of the aspects I’ve covered here, for them to be fully aware (and to build their process literacy).

What do you do in such situations, and why? What else do you see about this scenario I’m covering today?

What is sure, is that next time you are in a group that is looking for a volunteer, you know what to do in full awareness, and perhaps you decide to be that volunteer because you see the point of playing your part 🙂