Coping with conflict in a volunteer group?
February 11, 2021 2:37 PM   Subscribe

I'm part of the leadership of an volunteer organization. My co-leaders are are lovely except for one person who is consistently antagonistic. Basically, from my perspective this person acts like the rest of us work for them and don't do a very good job, when in fact we are all equals and they don't even do their fair share of the work. I would appreciate your suggestions for coping with this dynamic. I don't feel like my current stress about the situation is good for me. Thanks!
posted by ferret branca to Human Relations (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My thoughts will be to pull him aside for private talk or lecture about this is a leadership council, not a meeting between boss and subordinates.

But first is it your job to manage this meeting?
posted by kschang at 2:52 PM on February 11

Just thinking through a few situations without knowing any:

In a meeting - it depends on who is running the meeting and how they work but a strong agenda focusing on reporting on tasks completed/goals met is a good start. You can do post-mortems or gather feedback but it should be at set times. So for example, the person is like "I can't believe we don't have our communication plan together, and this outline is a disaster, Ferret, are you going to fix this?" Then it would be "Person, let's focus on the planning part of this meeting and we can do a post-mortem on timing later. What we need to decide today is...."

Alternatively you just drop it on them as if it's the best idea ever. "Person, I am hearing that you're really unhappy with this outline and think we should have a plan. In that case, could I give this next step over to you, and report back next week?"

At actual events - I would take the person aside and use my "when you ___, I ___" construction like "When you rearrange everything and say 'I can't believe this was set up this way,' I find it makes me feel frustrated and disrespected. It's especially frustrating because this is the third time you've been let to come set up."

Overheard or passive-aggressive remarks: Sometimes I would ignore them. Other times I would turn around and look them in the eye and say "Is there a reason you're telling me this?" or similar.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:20 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]

2nd vote for talk to them privately. I can't count the number of times I've heard of issues blowing up and when it blew up was the first time it was ever discussed. Things that are obvious to you may be totally unnoticed to the other person, especially if their cultural/education/professional background is different.

"Oh hey one-person, can I talk to you for a second? There's this weird thing going on and I wanted to mention it to you. Sometimes it seems like you treat ORGANIZATION like it's a job, and it I'm not sure if you've noticed but it's making people feel awkward around you sometimes. [Insert something nice about them here, such as "we all love how you do X thing" to keep the conversation from seeming hostile.] We're all volunteers here and of course everyone can volunteer as much or as little as they want to or are able to, but sometimes you treat others like they're doing less then you."

Of course depending on how antagonistic they've been and how big a clue stick is necessary, you can vary the recipe accordingly. That being said, always remember to add compliments! Sometimes you can even start with them... "I know you do X professionally and we are really thankful you can bring your skills from X to this volunteer gig, but please remember the rest of us work in different ways."

Lastly, I would try not to use any references to "fair share" of the work unless your organization has actually set down what that is in the bylaws or handbook or whatever rule system you have. Everyone volunteers until they are no longer willing or able, right? I doubt anyone is there 24/7. It's very unlikely that you have a bunch of volunteers with the exact same skills, abilities and amounts of free time, so it's pretty unlikely that it's even possible to figure out what "fair share" would mean in a way that any two people would agree on. I'd bet if you discuss it at length with this guy you might find that you and he disagree on what "fair share" would even mean, and that could be part of the unconscious part of the problem here. Sometimes the person "not pulling their weight" is actually putting in much more effort by virtue of their personal situation, and a lot of that can be invisible from the outside.
posted by tiamat at 3:23 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]

I was in a similar situation, where our leadership team was supposedly equal, but the most senior person had become the de facto director, without officially taking that title or anyone acknowledging that they were the final decision-maker of any issues that came up. It sounds like a similar dynamic is happening in your group where someone has decided they are the leader, without a consensus.

My feeling, after years of volunteering, is that most groups need designated leaders especially if the group has projects and tasks that need to be accomplished. Being a leader means you also take responsibility for when things go wrong, or when someone else doesn't do the work, then you as the leader step in and do it. I think ideally leaders should rotate out of their position regularly, or else they should be such a good leader that others recognize their skills and vote to keep them in place.

Anyhow, by way of saying, you need an official leader, who manages the workload. Someone with that skillset or is willing to learn those skills, and that way when 'antagonistic' person starts ordering people around, you just say, well, this is what Official Leader told me to, take it up with them.
posted by nanook at 3:33 PM on February 11 [3 favorites]

What do your other co-leaders think and what is their comfort with/tolerance of direct and respectful discussion of conflict? If others on your leadership team feel the same way, then you need to address this issue as a group.

If you are not alone in feeling that this one co-leader is out of line, then I would suggest calling a meeting to discuss and agree upon a set of meeting norms. How does your group want to function and treat each other? Once you have that agreement, you'll be in a better position to hold your co-leaders (and yourself) accountable. Include your norms on every written agenda as a reminder. Gentle reminders if someone isn't upholding the norms. A periodic review to see if the norms are still working.

And of course, you could always step down from this volunteer role. You can still support the organization with your volunteer time and money, but there is absolutely no reason why you should be volunteering to put up with nonsense. If your co-leaders or others ask why you stepped down, you can be clear (without naming names) that you felt the leadership dynamics were not working for you. Sometimes people need to see the consequence of their behavior (less people to do the work) to be motivated enough to change their behavior.
posted by brookeb at 3:34 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Maybe fair share is not good wording on my part. Certainly everyone in the group has different capacities. I just mean that this person seems to expect everyone else to act like their admin assistant. For instance, I posted a link in our chat to a meeting a few minutes before it was supposed to happen, and juuust before the meeting, this person dropped into the chat and was like where is the meeting? I can't find it! Someone send it to me ASAP!
posted by ferret branca at 3:44 PM on February 11


(1) there actually is an official leader like a board president; in that case the president has to address it privately with this person (who is presumably not the president.) (By the way that is one advantage of having a president: everyone knows where the buck stops.)

or (2) you really are a council of co-leaders, and you can therefore - the next time this person starts finding fault with other's work - tell them "Philomon, we're a volunteer council here. It's not really appropriate for you to be critiquing the work the rest of us do as if we're your reports. You're nobody's boss. If there's something you feel ought to be done differently you are more than welcome to take that responsibility on yourself."
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:45 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]

Obviously you know more about this person and this situation then I do, but the example you've just given doesn't actually sound like the situation you're describing to me.

Rather then treating everyone else like their admin assistant I could just as easily think that person was embarrassed/worried about being late for the meeting, and was asking for help. Albeit not asking very nicely. If there's even a hint this person is technologically unskilled I would give them the benefit of the doubt and think they were doing their best to be on time and asking for help with the link. Tone gets lost easily in text-only messages and once you start to see a pattern it's easy to convince yourself it's there even when it's not. One rude message and 20 ambiguous messages COULD be 21 rude messages, but you may enjoy life more if you don't treat it that way.

That being said if it's a part of a pattern of them needing tech help because they don't have notifications on and routinely miss the messages, or if they're just too lazy to read them, and as a result they end up making people re-send information, then just address THAT directly without going too far into the other stuff. "Hey X, I notice you asked for the meeting link, and yesterday you wanted the meeting minutes from last week, and both of those things were right there on the same [page/app/chat/thread] were you posted your message? Are you not getting the messages, do you need help with the app?" It's ok to put a little tone on this, because when you say something like "You did know you can scroll up and see all the old messages, right?" You want them to know they're wasting your time. You also want to sound like you want to help, but you can do both without being rude if you do it just right.

Then, if you have to, next time they ask for repeat information you can just ignore them, and everyone else in the group can make their own judgements as to whether they want to be super-helpful or let the person flounder a bit. Others may not be bothered by the same things you are, and you may find it you stop helping this person someone else will, and it's totally ok (maybe even recommended) not to care about that one way or the other.
posted by tiamat at 4:09 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: The example I gave is definitely part of a pattern. It happens for every meeting or item people have emailed them. They ask people to resend them things over and over and over at the last minute. I have tried to address things by asking them how they would prefer to get info. (Sorry, I will stop threadsitting.)
posted by ferret branca at 4:15 PM on February 11

If it really is a level structure with no boss and this person somehow thinks everyone else is doing a bad job and they know how it should be done...fantastic! I’d take that opportunity to cc everyone in and to let them know that Annoying person X has announced they have a better approach and we’d love to see how they’re going to tackle it. We look forward to seeing your amazing results. Thanks so much for that...

This tactic works really well for people who live to take over and criticise but never want to actually get their hands dirty. You think you can do a better job? Great, you got the gig. Have fun...
posted by Jubey at 4:44 PM on February 11

Re getting you to resend things over and over, can you alternatively set up a central hub with password access so that any updates or schedules are on there instead of people having to rifle through weeks of email for the latest information? Might make life easier.
posted by Jubey at 4:48 PM on February 11

Response by poster: Haha in the meantime the person flamed out and did something wildly inappropriate so we may want to remove them from leadership! Woohoo.
posted by ferret branca at 6:06 PM on February 11 [12 favorites]

Ugh, I was on a non-hierarchical board where someone was constantly demanding that information be re-sent to them, often right before meetings or other events. We tried many of the strategies above. However, n the end, the only thing that worked was to make sure relevant material was available to everyone in good time, and then ignore their last-minute demands. They missed a few meetings before they learned that they had to take care of their own schedule like everybody else. And not having them around taught the rest of us that we could manage just fine without their presence.

In short, if none of you are this person's EA, don't act like you are. They might still expect you to do things for them, but you get to help them make peace with disappointment. (That might also involve you making friends with disapproval, but you can handle it.)

I see from your update that they might have crossed the line in some other way, so all of this might be moot. If so, that's great.
posted by rpfields at 7:49 PM on February 11 [7 favorites]

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