Treat Your Employees Like Paid Volunteers

In today’s increasingly competitive marketplace, leaders in every organization are consistently working to solve the riddle of how they can get more done with fewer people. How can they access the very best efforts from each person on the team? Those of us who have been in the employ of another know that we can contribute more or contribute less and it is really up to us. We can choose to contribute just enough to keep the paycheck coming.

The truth is, the last 15 percent of an employee’s contribution is purely volunteer—you can’t pay enough to get it.

What lives in this last 15 percent? Problem solving. Innovation. Extra-mile service. Self-accountability. Cleaning up messes even if they didn’t make them. Helping others around them succeed. Loyalty.

Leaders in organizations often bristle at the idea of treating their paid employees like volunteers. I get it. It’s easier if the paycheck is enough to always get the very best that our team mates can offer. But, that’s not how humans work. And since our employees are human first, it pays to accept this reality.

So, what does it mean to treat paid employees like volunteers? It’s hard to understand this unless you have, at some time, worked with a volunteer organization. But if you have, you will understand that in order for people to consistently give of their “free time,” these things must be true:

If you are leading a group of volunteers and they don’t like being around you…you’re hosed! They will just be “too busy” to show up for the meetings and events. The same dynamic plays out in pay-for-play organizations.

What does it take for them to like you? It can vary from person to person, but the key is exactly this—person to person. You can’t use your positional power to get over-the-top performance from others. You must “show up” as a real person and demonstrate your willingness to be “in this” with them. Show them that you’re working to be more self-aware, open to change and growth (just like you’re expecting them to be), and that you need them as much as they need you.

Most volunteer organizations flounder because they use the mirror test: if you can fog the mirror…this job is yours. There is no substitute for feeling like the thing you’re asked to do is the very thing you feel “wired” to do. That it is so much at the core of who you are that you would do it for free. It’s a bonus if you can actually make a living at it.

When employees feel that their leaders are attune to this and will partner with them to find the sweet spot—that connection to the kind of assignments that really allow them to soar—you’ll get that last 15 percent.

Oh, and by the way…no amount of training can fix a bad hire.

There is a kind of communication that must be present to elicit maximum effort in volunteer organizations. It has to extend far beyond “this is your job…now just do it.” There must be continuous communication about the “why” behind the “what.”

This becomes clear when giving corrective feedback (which is especially tricky in volunteer organizations). It’s hard for any of us to receive correction, but if we understand the big picture and the benevolence in it, it’s easier to take. It might sound something like this: “It’s important that I give you this feedback because I am committed to helping you understand what it is going to take for you to feel really successful and accomplished in this assignment and how it contributes to all of us reaching our shared goals.”

All of us humans struggle to some extent with performance-based esteem. All of us want to be seen as having value…as being lovable even if we aren’t perfect at what we do. That WE are seen and not just our work.

I’ve seen the implicit “workaholic contract” play out many times. It’s the person who feels that they are only valuable if they continue to overdraw their life-balance account and bankrupt themselves in service to the organization. It’s a party for a while because both sides are getting what seems like a great deal. The organization gets the output of one and a half people, and the workaholic gets to feel that they’re of great value. But eventually, it all comes crashing down.

When it does, the hole in productivity is only eclipsed by the painful realization (usually more of a subconscious ache in the gut) that codependency has been the currency. Leaders demonstrate that the individual is more important than the work when they refuse to engage in this dance.

This can feel like a fearful doctrine to embrace to organizations in western culture. One client, an owner of a successful construction company, represented how big of a shift it is from a fear-based motivation to an invitation-based motivation by making this statement: “The crews in the field will only give their best when they feel the whip across their back now and then…. They need to feel they could lose their job at any time.”

Not only does this present a view of humanity that I find so uninformed, but it represents what happens to leadership when they have lost their humanity and the subsequent ingenuity that would cause them to find ways to call for the best out of those around them. It can feel like this approach takes a lot more effort and time (and in truth, it can), but the exponential ROE is huge!

The bottom line result is that, not only are leaders more likely to get the last bit of contribution from those working with them, but they’ll also find a new reservoir of contribution within themselves.


As an organizational psychologist, Dan McArthur has worked with owners and top executives in a variety of organizations for 30 years. He is at his best when the obstructions to growth and harmony are not readily observable. He has an amazing ability to quickly build trust with all key players and support them as they move toward better self-management, leadership, healthy team dynamics, and increased productivity. (Learn more about Dan…)

copyright 2018 McArthur Executive Development