How can a staff professional cope with a demanding, hypercritical volunteer?
Q: I work at a nonprofit with a mission I greatly support. I am a paid professional staff member working with a committee of volunteers. Most are lovely, but there is one I continually clash with. She is a critical person who seems to tell me everything the rest of us are doing wrong. While she knows the subject matter, her delivery leaves much to be desired; she makes demands rather than advising. I have gone out of my way to be diplomatic, but there is still tension. (She totally gave me the cold shoulder at a recent event.) She directs the group's energy away from assigned tasks to suit her own agenda. Now she's volunteered to be chair of this committee next year. This is a politically touchy situation, as I don't have the option of choosing or rejecting committee members.
I need to figure out how I can work with her under these circumstances. Should I address this tension with her head on? Should I instead hold a meeting about general expectations for the committee? And how do I put my feelings away so that I can better discern whether she has a point or is overreaching?
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A: Even if you had power to "fire" her, nonprofits can seldom afford to lose dedicated volunteers or subject them to the kind of structured performance management for-profit employers use. Still, you are being paid to direct resources to meet the nonprofit's goals, so you have some leverage. Let that ground you while you process the following questions:
Should I address tension head on? Yes, you should try to defuse this situation sooner rather than later. But at this point, the interpersonal tension seems less relevant than her observable behavior. Thus:
Should I hold a meeting about general expectations? Yes, and her pending promotion is the perfect opportunity. If she's going to be given authority, she also needs to be made aware of the corresponding responsibilities and limitations: "We have to ensure that use of resources can be directly traced to the organization's purpose. That means being prepared to face challenges from leadership and the public on how we allocate volunteer hours. As committee chair, you'll be under especially tight scrutiny."
How do I put my feelings away so that I can better discern when she might have a point? Some people just set our teeth on edge. But we can sometimes get past that if we know and trust their motives. Do you suspect she's gunning for your paid position, or is she just a frustrated expert whose only agenda is being right? Do you trust that she's trying to do right, albeit in the wrong way?
Then acknowledge her strengths, even the irritating ones -- "She is passionate about the cause." "She has a sharp eye for inefficiencies" -- followed by the corresponding weaknesses: "She lacks diplomacy and patience." "She tends to micro-focus on negatives and lose perspective on the broader priorities." Keep that information to yourself, but use it to help you understand and anticipate her behavior.
When interacting with her, give her space to explain (or fumble) her position: "I'm not seeing how doing it your way is better for our mission. Can you tell me more so I can justify it if we get pushback?" And give yourself space until your initial reaction to her settles down and your vision clears: "I hear what you're saying. Let me get back to you on that."
When tension flares up, e.g. cold shoulders, address it without assumptions: "Is everything OK?"
Finally, you mention clashing with this person but not whether her fellow volunteers appreciate her initiative or chafe at her imperiousness. Cultivate your own relationships with them and invite their feedback. As mentioned, your employer can't afford to lose volunteers -- and it certainly can't afford to let another volunteer drive them out.