Ten valuable lessons to be learnt from working with volunteers

by HCA17 Oct 2012

Recently I returned from volunteering my skills in Singapore at the Singapore F1 Grand Prix (SGP). Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motor sport. Just like in Australia, motor sport in Singapore is supported by hundreds of volunteers. Track marshals, flag and recovery specialists, medical, fire specialists ensure safe and fair racing for all.

This was my 5th Singaporean Grand Prix having been one of a select group of Australians in 2008 who trained the Singaporeans to run their amazing event. This year the motor sport competition was hot and as always there was pressure for the volunteer team to ensure they were ready and could respond quickly and effectively to trackside incidents. It struck me during a lull in proceedings that a 1200 plus team of volunteers come together once a year to help pull off this amazing event. They come back each year because they have fun; they are challenged and feel part of something greater than themselves. They feel they are making a valuable contribution to Singapore and to motor sport and indeed they are. The passion expressed by the volunteers is infectious. They are on the world stage and with millions of people watching their efforts there was considerable pressure on the volunteer group to do well. Needless to say it was a great success.

After the event had concluded and I was flying home to Australia I reflected on what an achievement the event had been. The F1 organisers and thousands of volunteers again pooled their combined efforts and resources to take the event forward to greater heights than that of previous years and I felt enormous pride as a mentor and as a contributor to that outcome.

But where would this and other similar large-scale events be without the support of the volunteers, and where does the group harmony and ‘all-in-this-together’ comradeship come from? Firstly, Volunteers at motor sport experience no pay disparity, because everyone got paid the same irrespective of rank or position: a cap, a badge, a commemorative tee-shirt and picnic meals to be consumed trackside.  Importantly, there is a clear hierarchy for management and decision-making. A ‘Command & Control’ structure is typically in place with layers of management and supervision evident, and communication lines clear.

It really is surprising how little conflict there was between the volunteers in the context of our recent National research* in Australia (knowing that our research suggests that the tournaments encouraged by structural systems can enable workplace bullying). Tournaments are recognized within ‘Agency Theory’. It is suggested that where people are driven to succeed through the structures of their employment and the culture within their agency, tournaments or competitions are created. These can be to the detriment of people.

This led me to ask: are there tournaments amongst volunteers in the motor sport which can lead to organisational conflict? In my experience, the answer is no.  My observations over a five year period demonstrate that to me. During this time I have observed 10 behaviours that are clearly visible within the volunteer group:

  1. People were involved because they wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves;
  2. They have a common purpose;
  3. People accept accountability for their productivity, attention to detail and to the execution of their duties;
  4. They are given support and the tools to do their job;
  5. Interactions are based upon respect, generosity and the knowledge that the contribution of the whole outweighs the outcomes derived from individual effort;
  6. People want their colleagues to succeed, for if their colleague succeeds then everyone does;
  7. Groups quickly moved through the Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing stages of team development processes;
  8. People have role clarity and feel supported;
  9. People wanted to be there;
  10. Teams were publicly rewarded rather than individuals;

Perhaps we can learn from how volunteers perform and take those lessons into workplaces.  How many of the 10 volunteer attributes can you mark off in your organisation?

 About the author

Stuart King is Managing Director of Risk to Business and a leading commentator on Workplace Bullying. The Risk to Business team is committed to reducing behavioral harm in workplaces around Australia.


Telephone: 03 8677 0884