We see it all around us, yet, inside of our organizations we seem to ignore or forget the lessons.
Look to the web. The highest traffic site on Earth is Google, run by an ever growing company that in many ways seems to have their act together if you read most of the business press. Yet number six on the list of highest trafficked websites is Wikipedia — a site where the content is created not by paid staffers, but by engaged volunteers who, supported (very) loosely by a paid staff, want to contribute and do so anonymously.
Look to your local community. I can’t name the organizations for you, but all you have to do is look around. Church and civic groups promote causes and make differences — often at higher levels with less resources than organizations with paid staff. Why? In large part because those involved truly and deeply believe in the service the group and they personally are providing.
Look at my family reunion. Last summer my family hosted a family reunion at our farm in Michigan. With about 50 people arriving from several states for a weekend of fun and fellowship, there were plans that needed to be made, and those plans came together quite well. Yet the reunion was better and more enjoyable for all, not because of the pre-work and planning of a committee, but because engaged participants made things happen in the moment. In fact, I would say that the people who enjoyed the event the most were those who offered to help, or just did what needed to be done before, during and after the event.
What are the common threads between these three examples?
- People are choosing to participate, not for pay but other reasons (i.e., they are volunteers).
- Commitment driven by engagement
And while a variety of factors could have been driving the engagement, a critical one is a clear picture of and belief in the purpose of the effort.
Wikipedia volunteers gain personal value from their efforts, likely take pride in making sure a topic they care about is accurately curated and completed represented on the site, and probably feel pride about the overall value the site brings to the world.
The volunteers in your local community organizations self-select (i.e., choose) the causes they care about and participate in. Why? Because they believe what they are doing is important for their community and those in it.
Why people volunteered for my reunion might be less clear, but I believe the reasons are much the same. Along with habit (the same people seem to always engage) and observation of the needs of others, those who participated most, at some level are those who care most deeply about the preservation of the reunion traditions.
Understanding. Care. Belief. Commitment.
Do you see how these things are connected and how important they are?
At this point, if you lead in a for-profit or at least a non-volunteer organization you may be thinking wistfully about the advantages of leading volunteers. Yet did you know that in trade associations and volunteer-based organizations one of the most valued and popularly attended sessions at their conferences is how to lead volunteers?
The grass is always greener, isn’t it?
Far too often in our organizations we use policy and structure and organization to somehow promote and gain commitment and caring. Is organization, structure and policy important? Of course!
Without organizing principles and tools, Wikipedia never would have gotten off the ground. Without some structure and best practices, your community organization wouldn’t make nearly the impact that it does. Without an initial plan, our reunion wouldn’t have been as successful (and there would have been a lot less to eat).
As a leader, our job is to encourage support and nurture the factors that lead to deeper commitment — helping people see the big picture, bringing the right people to the table, giving them a chance to make a real difference, letting them care.
And we don’t do all of that through more policies and procedures.
So, what am I recommending? I’m recommending that you set direction, engage people in an important purpose and then at some level, let them go.
Give people a chance to strive.
Give people a chance to create.
Give people a chance to really make a difference (and see that difference).
Give people a chance to make a mistake.
Give people an opportunity to succeed.
All of these are deep seated wants and needs of humans. When you give people the chance to play on that playground, you will see engagement grow and potential be tapped.
This doesn’t mean we abdicate or just completely get out of the way. Our role as a leader is to allow this engagement and commitment to grow, and to provide encouragement, support and resources to spur it on. If you make things too easy for people, they will disengage, but if they must struggle too mightily, enthusiasm and momentum might be lost.
The beauty is in the balance. Don’t over lead and stifle, yet don’t leave people alone either. Allow some organic organization the chance to root and take hold. You’ll get better results and more satisfied team members too.