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Treat Your Employees like Volunteers

There are benefits to a leader treating their employees like volunteers

by Walt Grassl
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why you should treat your employees like volunteers

Sarah needs a special project done as soon as possible. She approaches one of her resourceful employees, Ken, to see if he can do the project for her. Instead of directing Ken to get right on it, she explains to him that she has a problem. She describes the project and then asks if he can help her out.

Ken is a bit surprised by her approach and says, “Sure. But, you’re my boss. It’s not like I can decline.”

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Sarah said, “Actually, if you have something more important to do, I want to know about it. Then I can make a decision. Do I make a priority call on your time or do I need to find someone else to do this project?”

Ken said, “I have a project I am working on for George. I should be able to complete your project now and still meet George’s deadline.”

In dire situations, a leader must give orders based on their position—with no pushback or discussion. In today’s workplace, it is often not very effective. People resent being told what to do—especially when they receive conflicting direction from multiple leaders.

There are benefits to a leader treating their employees like volunteers. You should treat them like they can say no or walk away at any time. It encourages feedback. It improves morale. Often times, the feedback provided can prevent wasted time, money, and materials.

Here are some ways to lead your “volunteers”:

Share the Big Picture • Give your people a sense of purpose. Whether they are performing a manufacturing task or a clerical task, it doesn’t matter. If they don’t perform their small task well, the product or the company will suffer. Put the importance of their seemingly unimportant task in perspective.

Communicate • Give clear direction. Create alignment. Encourage respectful pushback. Be accessible. Not only have an open door policy, but walk around. If you show up at someone’s work area and engage them, they may ask you a question. That question had not reached the threshold for them to call or come visit you. Create those opportunities.

Develop • One way to make people enjoy working for you is to encourage them to grow. Remind them of the importance of training themselves. Give them suggestions on things to learn. You can help their development by giving them new “stretch” assignments and responsibilities. Then, be patient and nurturing as they ascend the learning curve. Coach them through any reluctance they have to leave their comfort zone. They will feel better about themselves and be more valuable team members.

Play to Their Strengths • Know your people. Know what they do well. Know what they don’t do well. While you want them to grow, it is your responsibility to know their weaknesses that may be too hard to develop. You have to realize that people are what they are. Honor them by capitalizing on their strengths and not fighting them over their weaknesses.

Show Respect • People want to be respected. Don’t be one of those people who doesn’t make eye contact or acknowledge people when you walk into a room or when you are walking down the halls. And seemingly only when you need a favor, approach them like your long-lost best friend. Smile and acknowledge the people you pass in the hall—whether you know them or not. Develop relationships before you need favors.

Acknowledge Experience • There is a saying that everyone is an expert within three feet of their workspace. People who have been doing a task for years or who have been with the organization for years have experience. Realize that and when you approach them on an issue, take time to honor that experience and listen to them. Nothing irritates a seasoned performer more than when a new leader comes in and wants to share their book learning and tell them what to do. Listen with the intent to understand first, and then discuss the best way to solve the problem. You will come up with better quality solutions and have a team that respects you.

Gratitude • Be grateful for the big things and the little things. Always remember to say please when asking someone to do something and thank you when someone does something for you. So often, this doesn’t happen and the leaders are unaware of the effect. Also, seek out opportunities to catch people doing something right. People want to be appreciated. Go out of your way to show them.

Ken was able to complete Sarah’s special project on time as well as meet George’s deadline. He felt good about how he was approached and was allowed to be in a position to succeed on both tasks.

He also had a new appreciation for what it takes to be a good leader. He used to think that he could never be a leader because he didn’t like ordering people around. He is re-thinking that position, because he knows you can be leader without acting like a dictator.

About the author

Walt Grassl is a speaker, author, and performer. He hosts the radio show, “Stand Up and Speak Up,” on the RockStar Worldwide network. Walt has performed standup comedy at the Hollywood Improv and the Flamingo in Las Vegas and is studying improv at the Groundlings School in Hollywood. For more information on bringing Walt Grassl to your next event, please visit