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How to Deal

When Volunteer Leaders Overstep the Bounds of Authority

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By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 6, 2009; 12:00 AM

I am being attempted to be micro-managed by a pair who are not my supervisors. They demand to sign off on my work products, order me to attend meetings, etc. My supervisor agrees this it totally inappropriate, but he is conflict averse and does not step in to help me. Meanwhile, they get angrier at me... accuse me of insubordination, but I'm not subordinate to them and have been always polite.

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A complication... this is a largely volunteer organization. The micromanagers are our current volunteer co-chairs, but this is not a command and control position. My supervisor is paid, and I am a paid consultant.

Help... this is becoming untenable.

As a staff member for a volunteer organization, you face a truly unique set of workplace challenges. You are formally accountable to your manager, yet you must also be responsive to your volunteers, without whom the organization would not survive.

I have most often encountered this issue in the context of trade associations and non-profit boards. In a trade association, the staff supports a body of members many times their size. Staff salaries and operational expenses are paid by membership dues and the members serve on committees and other governing bodies that make operational decisions and execute the mission of the organization. It is the role of staff in trade associations to administer membership benefits, which often include trade publications, continuing education, conferences, and networking events. Without the assistance of volunteer members, however, the organization's staff would be restricted in its ability to anticipate the interests of members and effectively deliver what they need. Volunteers serve as the long arm of the organization, providing staff with invaluable feedback from remote corners of the membership and, in turn, helping to disseminate information and resources.

Especially in trade associations that encompass highly educated or affluent professionals, it is not unusual for the volunteer members to develop a somewhat imperious attitude toward staff. Staff members struggle to offer good support to these leaders without losing sight of their ultimate obligation to the organization as a whole. Plainly, if you become overly absorbed in meeting the idiosyncratic requirements of particular individuals, you will neglect your obligation to ensure the long-term survival of the association.

A similar dilemma also arises in the context of non-profit boards. Insofar as the board members play a valuable role in fundraising and volunteer recruitment, the organization's staff members seek to keep the members interested and engaged. Yet, they would also be wise to maintain a tight focus on fundamental priorities. Suppose a board member proposes a whimsical or tangential idea or decides to champion a pet project that might not fit squarely within the organization's mission. Staff members ought to be grateful for the interest and attention of this volunteer, but they should also gauge whether it is worthwhile to entertain the person's ideas at the potential expense of core projects. As in your case, you might be dealing with overzealous volunteer leaders who have overstepped the bounds of their authority. How do you harness their obvious engagement for the benefit of the organization without pandering to their power trip?

The answer to these dilemmas lies in strong leadership and diplomacy. If you are lucky, your organization has hired senior executives who are able to skillfully navigate the world of your volunteers. They share a similar professional background and they are able to easily gain the trust and respect of your members. When a situation arises in which a volunteer needs to be educated regarding the lines of authority or some other such delicate subject, you can count upon your senior executives to step up to the challenge and convey the message in a way that is direct and respectful.

You, unfortunately, cannot count upon such a manager to talk to your co-chairs about their behavior. Short of convincing your supervisor to step in, your only option is to take up the issue yourself. Tell your supervisor what you would like to say and ask him whether he would be willing to accompany you to a meeting with the co-chairs in which you politely explain your position and open a dialogue regarding how you can all work more effectively together. If your supervisor is too conflict-averse to face the co-chairs in this way, then ask whether you could copy him on an email message to the co-chairs conveying the same message. This type of passive support might feel more comfortable to someone like your supervisor who is loath to confront difficult issues. However you decide to approach the problem, you need to first extract a promise from your supervisor that he will not disavow your position if the co-chairs challenge what you are saying. If he does not support you, however meekly, when your co-chairs respond, then you will end up even more powerless than before.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.



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