Why Lack of Volunteers for Projects is a Leadership Problem

By | December 8, 2014

Kool Derby

I participated in a webinar in which a manager was leading the discussion. My role was mainly as an observer, but I would provide project management guidance when necessary. The manager forwarded the participants an agenda several days in advance, and most of us were clear regarding the expectations.

Prior to the meeting, I received a call from Jack, a team member who would also participate in the webinar. He informed me that the manager (Tom) was not well-liked. Tom took over the department about a year ago, and he tried to make radical changes. He wanted his team to do this, to do that, and so on. It was going to be his way or no way at all.

Mission Impossible

Tom’s problem was that he took over a department with veteran employees. They knew the system better than he. In fact, the team of eight people knew they could “gang-up” on Tom and make his life hard. Of course, Tom could strong-arm the decision-making process, but this approach was bound to backfire.

Jack told me the following: “Tom is trying to scare us into doing stuff. Some of his ideas are good, but we are not going to buy into them. If we do, he might think that he has control over us. Until he calms down and listens to us, we will make it difficult for him.”

The Webinar

The day of the webinar arrived, and Tom proceeded through the agenda. For the most part, everyone was civil. A hearty and fruitful discussion ensued. I was surprised that Tom allowed the team to reach consensus on several key points, and the vibes were good in the meeting.

However, near the end of the meeting, Tom asked for volunteers for an important project that had a looming deadline. Jack tipped me off about this requirement, stating that Tom previously sent an email asking for volunteers, but if no one jumped in, he would make mandatory assignments.

When Tom asked for volunteers, the meeting went silent. He waited about 15 seconds, but no one responded. Finally, Tom suggested that he would follow-up via email.

The Problem

Tom has two problems on his plate:

  1. He started off on the wrong foot by taking an autocratic approach. The sweeping changes he wanted to make were fine, but he needed to first ask the veteran team for suggestions. In other words, getting buy-in first was important.
  1. Instead of threatening to make mandatory assignments, Tom should approach the team members in a professional manner. He should reinforce the importance of the project, and ask for team member assistance. This is a far more effective approach than giving ultimatums.

Tom has a chance to succeed, but he faces an uphill struggle. He created a deep hole, and it will now take time and patience to get back on track. One recommendation is for Tom to have a one-on-one with each team member to determine what is important to him. In other words, he needs to start anew.

In short, excellent leaders know that change is driven by the people, and not by policies or mandates.

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