Have I gone rogue -- from lawful good to unlawful good?
December 16, 2014 7:57 AM   Subscribe

I'm involved with two organizations - one volunteer group, one professional group. In the past week, I unintentionally stole the thunder of someone in each group, in front of the whole group. Is it a coincidence, or do I have a blind spot here?

In the volunteer group, I've been involved for years. We had a conference call recently. The president of our group has extremely limited availability, so conference calls are usually the only time we have to get the president's direction. My memory of the call is, and my notes show, that the president asked me to recruit people from a semi-related group to help with a project. I exchanged some emails after the call with the project lead, clarifying and confirming what I should tell the people I'm recruiting about what their role would be. I went to the semi-related group meeting (an informal, social gathering without an agenda) and explained the project. As soon as I got done speaking, the one other person who is in both groups along with me, said "um, actually the president gave that project to me, you don't need to recruit for it." I said, "oh sorry, I didn't realize that. Never mind." He said, "It was on the conference call? That you were also on?" At this point, it was maximum awkward to be going back and forth like this in front of semi-related group. I did say, "I thought I was asked to do the recruiting, and the project lead thought the same, but I guess we were mistaken. I didn't mean to steal your thunder." Confusingly, he told me to go ahead and steal it, he didn't mind. And I wasn't sure if he meant it's OK, let's drop it, or if he meant he didn't really want to do the project but was stuck with it because it had been assigned to him. All I can say is I left there without any other names but his to give to the project lead. And I guess I questioned myself, as in, maybe I should have checked in with him before speaking to the whole semi-related group, since he is in both groups, and would naturally be the first person to recruit? This actually did not occur to me beforehand.

In the professional group, I've been involved for six months, attending meetings, observing what goes on, introducing myself to people. I did join a committee right away, but my M.O. with them, too, has been to show up and listen. Just last month, I volunteered to do a small portion of a larger project the committee is working on. When finishing up my portion, I had a really neat experience that I thought the group would enjoy hearing about. I've already skimmed through three years of the archives of the listserv, and people do share success stories (they also request help with stuff, and share email forwards with memes relating to the profession, that kind of thing). So I wrote it up in a way that was very complimentary to the organization and grateful to the committee for the chance to have this experience. Less than an hour later, the organization secretary sent a reminder to the listserv about who the committee chairs are and when their projects are supposed to be done and written up for the newsletter. A few hours later, my committee chair sent an email to the listserv saying "as the chair of the committee, I would like to update you on our project..." retelling my story that I had just posted, plus briefly mentioning the other parts of the larger project.

I don't necessarily feel guilty about posting what I posted, just confused. Like oh man, I thought I was just sharing a success story about my little portion of the project, but I guess I came across as stealing the chair's opportunity to write for the newsletter? And hogging the limelight by neglecting to mention those working on other portions of the larger project? How did that happen? It genuinely didn't occur to me beforehand that my story might be taken that way. I'm not sure if an apology is in order, or an explanation, or a light joking comment, or just move on?

Question for both: is this a level of stepping on toes that naturally happens in the course of getting things done, just apologize and shake it off? Or do I need to do more running of my plans past people before I move forward, to try to prevent this from happening so often? If this is a blind spot for me, what can I do to shine a better light on it?
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck to Work & Money (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
No, I don't think this is your fault and I think the chair is actually the one who is doing the "thunder-stealing" here. I'm getting a strong vibe that they are jealous of you and not dealing with it well, so they want to take credit for your work. I think it's extremely likely that they lied to your face when they told you the president told them to take charge of the project.

If you don't want this to happen again, you can fix this in the future by doing writeups of everything for the president and chair and outline who is responsible for what and when (e.g. "Committee Chair: send monthly emails to listserv with project update"), and asking them to sign off on it before proceeding. But this is a volunteer thing and I feel like it's almost not worth your time. Ask the chair to do it or just take a deep breath and let this roll off your back.
posted by capricorn at 8:10 AM on December 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

In the volunteer group example, it doesn't sound like you goofed up at all, it reads like the other person did. I mean, after all, the project lead heard the same thing you did on the call, so... I would put this one out of your mind.

In the professional group example, I don't think you really messed up, and it reads like the others are more touchy than necessary. But since you're fairly new to the group, I would suggest running things up the flagpole a bit more in the future just to make sure you aren't inadvertently stepping on any sensitive toes.

is this a level of stepping on toes that naturally happens in the course of getting things done, just apologize and shake it off?

Possibly, probably. Some toe-stepping is really unavoidable I think.

Or do I need to do more running of my plans past people before I move forward, to try to prevent this from happening so often?

I think you did that in the volunteer group example by reaching out to the project lead. In the other example, it might have been good to casually mention to another member, "I'm thinking of doing X. How do you think that would be received?"

If this is a blind spot for me, what can I do to shine a better light on it?

Eh. Two observations does not make a trend. Don't sweat this too much.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 8:11 AM on December 16, 2014

I'm not sure if an apology is in order, or an explanation, or a light joking comment, or just move on?

I wouldn't risk a joking comment in any case where people might feel hurt of offended-- even if you are not sure you did anything wrong. I would ask the committee chair if the post was out of order and apologize if they think so. It costs nothing and then you can work together to clarify who should be posting what.
posted by BibiRose at 8:12 AM on December 16, 2014

Oh, I missed that these were two different examples and people! Either way, I think you're fine and the other people are the ones in the wrong, but insisting on clearly defined roles could still help. It sounds like in the latter example, the secretary may already have that information available so you could check in with them.
posted by capricorn at 8:14 AM on December 16, 2014

I wouldn't even say you've stepped on anyone's toes so much as other people have gotten their knickers ever so slightly twisted over basically nothing. You'll drive yourself crazy trying to come up with tricks and strategies to avoid minor irritations like these. Heck, in the second example it's not even clear that the org chair was particularly bothered. Shake it off and focus on the bigger picture of each organization's main goals and purpose, and on what you want to get out of your involvement with them.
posted by jon1270 at 8:20 AM on December 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I find it exceedingly hard to remember details from conference calls, even when I am taking notes, because of the lack of nonverbal communication from the person on the phone. With the volunteer group, it sounds like one of you was mistaken, but it's hard to know which of you. It would probably have been good to check in with him first, in a sort of "Hey, let's work on this together" way, but I don't think it was necessary and it sounds like he was rather rude about it. If it were me, I might ask him informally if he has ideas for people who might be good for the project, either to recognize work he already did or smoothe over any ego-ruffling that may have happened.

For the professional organization, it actually reminds me of the way various supervisors of mine would specifically ask me to write up what I was doing so that they could copy and paste it into reports or newsletters. My guess is that your message actually set off an "Oh, shit, that needs to get done" reaction from the secretary and an "Oh, good, I can just copy and paste that" reaction from the chair. I wouldn't say anything about it; I would, next time, restrict such "Yay, us!" messages to go to the chair directly, who can then decide what to do with them.
posted by jaguar at 8:26 AM on December 16, 2014

For your second example: I am a committee chair for a non-profit, and I don't think either you or the committee chair did anything wrong here. It's completely normal for a chair to cannibalize informal listserv announcements for a more formal newsletter.

You could check with the chair to see if in the future they want to vet your messages before it goes out to the listserv, but that would be an idiosyncracy IMO.

(Also, I sort of get the feeling that you stew over conversations and emails for a long time. I struggle with that, too - for me it's been very unproductive and I am working more on either taking what people say at face value and not casting hidden meanings on everything they say, or being direct and asking them to clarify.)
posted by muddgirl at 9:03 AM on December 16, 2014

Re: your first example with the volunteer group this is why conference calls should in theory have someone taking the minutes. People seem to dismiss such a thing as overly formal but the whole point is to get a consensus summary of what was discussed and decided in a meeting or on a call. There are lots of resources for how to take good minutes online, this short pdf has some basics.

Not that that helps your specific case but perhaps in the future you could volunteer to act as a clerk, draft the minutes, and then circulate them after the meeting/call? Anyone not clear on what was decided can just refer to the minutes.

In your second case I wonder if the committee chair just didn't see the listserv report as being that important and borrowed from your post to save time?
posted by Wretch729 at 9:04 AM on December 16, 2014

Just my opinion (but since you asked): you didn't do anything wrong in either situation.

In the volunteer situation, first off, I'm inclined to trust you more than the other guy since you took notes during the meeting, plus your corroborating mention of emails with the project lead, and so forth.

I'm also inclined to think that the other guy was something of a jerk - even if you got it totally wrong and he was indeed supposed to be the "recruiter" guy, his response "It was on the conference call? That you were also on?" was unprofessional in front of a roomful of outsiders.

In the professional situation, it appears you did a lot more Due Diligence than most people to ensure that you weren't just 'barging in'. I agree with whoever suggested that it sounds like your write-up triggered other people to think "oh my, I need to send out my own update!" I gather that some people think it's SOP for the chair to casually plagiarize from what you wrote, and that may well be true (it is out of my experience) - but I think that they could have made at least a token show of either asking you first or at the very least telling you that the chair is going to use your story.

There are things that you could do in the future, if you wanted to (like: spotting another volunteer at the meeting, going over and saying hi and mentioning that you're going to ask for recruits) but as far as I'm concerned, you not only met, you exceeded standards for "doing things right". Don't lose any sleep over this.
posted by doctor tough love at 3:41 PM on December 16, 2014

Best answer: I'm a nonprofit professional and volunteer and project worker, and I think you've done nothing wrong except to be effective. And, because of politics, that sometimes gets people's defenses up. Carry on; you're looking like a together, organized professional here, and other people are (rightly) nervous that they look bad by comparison. Your influence will raise the overall game. More communication can always help, and in situation#2 you might want to have a conversation over when/whether it's appropriate to share progress updates and who's supposed to do it - but no, you didn't do a damn thing wrong, from what you've described.
posted by Miko at 8:23 PM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I do a lot of committe work, especially volunteer, and I think the "problem" here is that you were effective and efficient in both instances. This tends to rattle some people's cages ; and, you get the kind of obnoxious behavior that ocurred with the guy in your first example. That was uncalled for.

Since you've been doing this volunteer work for years, I'm surprised you haven't encountered this behavior before. Has the group dynamic changed, or is the other guy new?

In any event, I have to agree with the consensus not to lose sleep over it. Keep CYA notes and continue to do a great job.
posted by alwayson_slightlyoff at 11:02 PM on December 16, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks for all the reassurance. You were all correct; this was not something where I needed to make apologies or major changes to my behavior.

Since posting, I've seen the volunteer group guy and the professional group committee chair in person, and didn't sense any weirdness or tension coming from them, so I ended up not mentioning these incidents at all. I'm making a mental note to communicate more, just because it couldn't hurt and might help things go even smoother.

The posts marked best got me thinking about why these situations in particular were triggering my anxiety, and I realized it was because they reminded me of a different situation in the past. Realizing that really helped me relax about the situations in the ask.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 12:42 PM on December 22, 2014

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