In most people’s everyday work experience, there’s nice coworkers (and I’m dumping together here colleagues, reports, bosses, partners and customers) and there’s people whom you dislike. In a normal business environment, you just get along with everyone because there’s something else you want (your job done and a pay check) and so do them. There may be some backstabbers, some suckups, some unreliables and some sharpbooted people, and you usually just learn to be reasonably happy and do your your work in that environment. Yes, you do avoid some people, and maybe even use the sharp elbow on others, but (unless some exceptional situation) you don’t just walk away from the company.
Now, consider a volunteer effort. Maybe it’s an NGO, maybe an political campaign, maybe it’s an in-company community of practice. The rules of engagement have changed, and you better realize it.
Let’s consider the “inner team” or collaborators: facilitators, field workers. Unpaid people who devote time to a cause because they believe in it… and also, crucially, they believe in the people whom their working with. They expect coherence, good values, niceness in short (the long version is too long for a blog post). If they find strain, lack of purpose, incoherence, ethical incongruences… they will bolt.
And the more personal the team relationship gets, the more exacting the demands. To put it in perspective, I’d say that “issue” and “relationship” are both driving forces for collaboration. If you base it on one or the other, you’d better make sure you keep your performace up to scratch.
This is a key volunteer management issue: some advocate more “issue-driven”, job-like relationships (“we’re in this for a cause, we don’t holiday together”); some advocate closer “people-driven” collaboration (“hey-how’s-the-wife”). In the first example, you can have volunteer teams that don’t ever come into sighting range of each other but collaborate on tasks, maybe via the web, and as long as the goal is relevant and the work goes well, everyone’s happy. In the second example, the specific work is far less relevant and you absolutely need the team to have a good internal dynamic or it’ll crumble; physical meetings spark flurries of activity.
It may be transparent already, but I favour the first. For two reasons: I believe in getting things done, and I don’t want to judge people. I tend to run volunteer projects in that fashion too, but the longer the project, the harder it becomes. When the short sprint turns into a long slog (i.e. when, after setting and launching the CoP, you have to manage it every single day), issue is just not enough. You need to get along with other volunteers. You need to respect the admins. You need to like your CoP members. You need to believe in the policies you’re implementing. It’s not just the goal anymore.
And people questions are tricky. On a volunteer organization, it’s hard to be selective (picking just mature, balanced and socially able people as collaborators or facilitators) but you absolutely need to try. Friendship issues emerge: some people get along with others, some don’t so much. And there’s the killing matter of loyalties: when the team is formed, members defend each other and expect the same from others. This needs to be tempered for the team to be affective (corporatism is a vice), but it also has a very radical consequence: members who show stronger loyalties to outside groups who happen to clash with yours cause enormous emotional charge. This starts to put people in a “either them or us” situation, and can get very (issue-wise) valid people out of the door.
In the same vein, whereas issue-driven collaboration is a low-emotional-intensity affair, people-driven collaboration is a hot soup. You can’t scold people as freely as you want to. You need to be aware of who’s a close friend of whom (say you step on a member’s misbehaviour, and she’s a close friend of a key facilitator: you’d better be very diplomatic). Emotional involvement with the task and the people involved grows, and setbacks or rebuffs can have serious consequences. Management becomes a very intensive job with a lot of coaching (and even hand-holding) to do, and cultural issues (such as respect of other people’s views and beliefs) take a new relevance.
Of course, there’s the positive side that a people-driven team can show more task flexibility and more long-term resilience than an issue-driven one. Indeed it’s closer to a friends’ group than a team, with its advantages and disadvantages.
Put that in the balance. And be very aware of the consequences when you first decide to let the informal or people-driven start to matter in your volunteer group…
… or when it simply does, because it will happen in any case :-). You’d probably do well to plan ahead for it.