It’s one of the most perplexing problems many leaders face. How do you handle a difficult team member?

Want to make the problem worse?  That’s easy.

Imagine the difficult team member is a volunteer.

Then what do you do? After all, they’re volunteering their time.

Most people think you can’t do anything. And that’s dead wrong.

Why You Can’t Ignore It

If you want a healthy organization, the best ways to handle conflict and unmet expectations are up front and directly.

Let’s face it—churches, not profits and businesses struggle every day because people are unwilling to have difficult conversations up front or take meaningful action.

The consequences are huge and costly:

Factions

Dissent

Gossip

Resentment

Lost potential

Frustration

Low morale

In addition to all these, unresolved conflict and poor performance will also scare off your most capable, healthy leaders. They’ll just step back or go elsewhere.

If you want a healthy organization, the best ways to handle conflict and unmet expectations are up front and directly. Click To Tweet

5 Ways to Handle a Difficult Volunteer

While each situation is different, there are principles that apply in almost every situation.

Here are 5 I’ve found to work well, whether you’re dealing with a difficult person or a difficult situation or fit. When I’ve followed them, things have gone far better than when I haven’t:

1. Define the Issue.

Before you deal with a situation, you need to understand it accurately. Do this before you meet with the individual involved. If you need to, pull in someone who is also familiar with the situation to get another perspective (don’t gossip, but occasionally you might need to confidentially pull in someone with great judgment and wisdom).

Take some time to figure out what the problem might be. Is it:

A character issue—he or she lacks moral judgment, a strong work ethic or can’t be trusted?

A competency issue—he or she lacks the skills set required to do the job?

A chemistry issue—he or she is a good and competent person, but the fit just isn’t right?

It’s way too easy just to say ‘he’s the problem’ or ‘she’s the problem’ but you never really win. Defining the problem helps you solve the problem.

Also, own everything you can. It’s almost never 100% them. Find out what you’ve done wrong and be right up front about that. Once in a while you’ll even realize it’s not them. It’s you.

Defining the problem helps you solve the problem. Click To Tweet

2. Separate the Person from the Problem

This is just so huge. First, an example. When my kids were small and did something that needed punishment my default position was to say “You’ve been a bad boy” and then assign the punishment. My much smarter wife Toni always corrected me and said, “No, he’s a good boy who did a bad thing.”  While that might not be fully accurate theology, it’s great parenting and it’s a great conflict management strategy.

Affirm the person. Deal with the problem. Even if it’s a character issue, remember that God loves people with poor character (he loves you and me, right?). When you affirm the person and deal with the problem you are in a much stronger position.

How do you do that? Read on.

When you affirm the person and deal with the problem you are in a much stronger position. Click To Tweet

3. Go Direct.

Have the conversation face to face. And yes, a conversation. Not an email. Not a policy that says “all people must stop doing X” when everybody knows you’re really targeting one person and just don’t have the guts to talk to them.

Have the conversation over coffee, or in your office.

So how do you have the conversation? Try an affirmation sandwich. Begin with praise. Deal with the issue (the meat). Then end with affirmation.

Here’s a short example:

Begin. John I love how you’ve grown in your faith. I’ve seen X Y Z over the last year and it’s so encouraging.

Deal with the Issue. I need to talk to you today about the way your gruff demeanour is rubbing people the wrong way. You might not even be aware of it so I want to give you a chance to talk about it. But it needs to change and I hope we can get there.

End. So let’s work on this plan together and I’m sure we can see you continue to make progress. I really hope we can work this through and am confident there’s a way if we work hard enough.

Or, let’s say you’re terminating someone:

Begin. John I love how you’ve grown in your faith. I’ve seen X Y Z over the last year and it’s so encouraging.

Deal with the Issue. I need to talk to you today about the way your gruff demeanour is rubbing people the wrong way. I know this has been an ongoing issue and we’ve talked about it before. I’m afraid we’re going to have to ask you not to serve in X anymore.

End. I know this is hard, but I’m going to track with you. We want to see you continue to grow and that can happen whether you’re on the team or not. We want to help you win.

4. Follow Up

Don’t finish the relationship when you finish the conversation. So many leaders make that mistake.

Remember, you separated the person from the problem. So you’re dealing with the problem and caring for the person. Book a coffee a month down the road. Send a note. Check in. Pray for them. See how they’re doing. Care.

Don’t finish the relationship when you finish the conversation. So many leaders make that mistake. Click To Tweet

5. Evaluate

As you help them take a break, and in a new place or reform their attitude, evaluate their progress. This is hard, but their long term health and the health of your organization are impacted by honest evaluation.

Don’t sacrifice them or your organization because you’re trying to be nice. Speak the truth in love. Your commitment to them as a person will pay off in the long run. Even if they never see it, you will have done the best thing you could in the moment and given them a chance to grow.

What Else?

I’m sure there are many questions that are unanswered, but when we’ve followed these 5 steps, people often do get better and our organization stays far healthier. Best yet? Everyone is better served, including the volunteer.

What are you learning?

Leave a comment with your best practices and questions about how you handle difficult volunteers.

5 Healthy Ways to Handle A Difficult Volunteer

23 Comments

  1. Debbie on April 27, 2021 at 2:28 pm

    As the volunteer manager for a small for-profit running event company, I’ve inherited some relationships with people that we utilized in key operational roles as volunteers. Due to their job performance (some instances dating back 3+ years), our staff does not want to continue to invite them to volunteer, but they are interested.

    Unfortunately, conversations were never held with these individuals to discuss the situations, except for one person. My predecessor handled the one conversation and while I don’t know the exact content of that conversation, the volunteer in question has continued to state her innocence regarding the circumstances.

    We have no documentation other than anecdotal records from the time. We have no formal or informal system of providing feedback to our operational volunteers, which is something I’m working to address. But I’m trying to move it all forward in a healthier manner – for the individuals and the company.

    Would you have any suggestions on what to say in conversation with the individual volunteers that are due some kind of response. Much Thanks!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 28, 2021 at 2:09 pm

      Hey Debbie,

      Would it be possible for those other staff members to be the ones to have the conversation? Since they have first-hand experience, they will likely be able to give better feedback and have a more productive conversation with those volunteers.

  2. Gary on March 17, 2021 at 7:55 am

    We had a “problem” volunteer at church who was asked to discontinue in her role as a guest services team lead not because she was hard to get along with or incompetent. She was quite good in her role and loved by her team members. However, she was honest about the fact she was living with her fiance’ during their engagement. Since she was in a situation that would have been costly and difficult to change she accepted the “demotion” with abundant grace and continued to worship with us, but the disruption to the team was the bigger issue. Some disagreed with the way the situation was handled enough to quit the team in protest. The message that was sent was; “This volunteer has failed morally. She cannot continue to serve in her role here. End of story.”
    I wish this would have been handled differently with a little more grace being shown by the church along with better communication with the affected team. Maybe next time.

  3. Josie Graham on March 16, 2021 at 5:27 pm

    I am the one paid member at my organization. My volunteers are very good people and great workers. One however, despite being good at what she does, is a pain in the neck. She is apparently angry that I was hired to coordinate and wants to undermine me every chance she gets. She’s been snapping at me, going behind my back with things, not letting me in on news that I need to know, and pulling something else I can’t tolerate. We are on a military post. She is a high ranking officer’s spouse and never lets me forget it. Wives don’t have rank, but she thinks they do. She has to stick her nose and drama into every little thing, instead of letting me do my job. She wastes hours of my time questioning and complaining about things she doesn’t know anything about. She’s actually made me think of quitting. My own boss says if she keeps it up, send her to him, as he doesn’t want to lose me. But it’s just burning me up that I always have to deal with her in one way or another, pushing her way into taking over.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 17, 2021 at 2:45 pm

      Wow! I’m so sorry you’re going through this.

      To me, it sounds like you should get your boss involved. And if you haven’t already, address the problem directly with her.

      Be kind, have a cool head, but be very firm when you talk to her.

      I hope that helps!

  4. Sharon Petke on February 1, 2021 at 12:37 am

    How do you handle it when someone volunteers for a position for which you feel they are not well suited? In other words, you want to avoid the problem of having to fire them after damage is done. He’s mentioned it several times, knowing that we won’t make a decision about a replacement for that position for many months.

  5. June Collins on July 28, 2019 at 11:53 am

    PeaceBang, I agree. Sounds so secular! In Christ we are ALL winners no matter our foibles! Each of us have them.
    Carey
    This is a great topic and a very necessary one for leaders who are insecure and have the tendency to need the approval of others, all the while believing that correction is not Christ-like because it might hurt feelings …

    • June Collins on July 28, 2019 at 11:59 am

      Referring to PeaceBang’s comment about not liking the phrase “we want to help you win”. I agree with his comment.

  6. Sheryl on July 28, 2019 at 10:47 am

    Love the wisdom here—and it applies to far more situations than just problematic church volunteers. Thank you!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 29, 2019 at 8:41 pm

      Glad to help!

  7. Bekele on July 28, 2019 at 8:32 am

    I like to work with volunteers rather than employers
    Thank you for the well argumentative idea you have brought for me.

  8. […] and those who serve are being attacked as hard to handle, people that just want to pump up their resume, and that it’s hard to find good roles for […]

  9. PeaceBang on March 23, 2016 at 9:00 pm

    Can you explain what you mean by “we want to help you WIN?” That isn’t language I would ever use and it actually made me laugh.

    • June Collins on July 28, 2019 at 11:48 am

      PeaceBang, I agree. Sounds so secular! In Christ we are ALL winners no matter our foibles! Each of us have them.
      Carey
      This is a great topic and a very necessary one for leaders who are insecure and have the tendency to need the approval of others, all the while believing that correction is not Christ-like because it might hurt feelings …

  10. Brian on December 9, 2015 at 11:49 am

    Wonderful post. The webinar is no longer working!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 9, 2015 at 12:58 pm

      Thanks for letting me know. Took down the link!

  11. Mike on January 24, 2014 at 11:17 am

    Numbers 1 and 2 are so huge! Thanks you for you simple, clear and applicable approach. Passing on to all my staff who lead volunteers.

  12. Jeff on November 20, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    Bookmarked. Haven’t needed this yet, but I imagine this info will be invaluable when the time comes. Great article.

  13. Dave Patchin on November 19, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    Great insight and you did a fabulous job of putting it all together start to finish for almost ANY difficult conversation. Having been on both ends of these many times, and both done them poorly and have them done poorly with me, why and how we do this is critical to how we love others.

  14. Brent Dumler on November 15, 2013 at 11:27 pm

    This is so good, so healthy, and yet so easy to buy into the lie that it’s impossible to fire (or correct) a volunteer. And for churches who do practice going directly to the source, many tend to stop there. I love that you encourage the follow up. Dealing with the issue is often so uncomfortable that we are simply relieved after it’s over…and we drop the ball right there. This is when we can practice loving pastoral care on these individuals.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 18, 2013 at 3:33 pm

      Brent…always appreciate your kind words! Follow up is hard, but essential. It’s often the difference between losing and maintaining a relationship.

  15. […] 5 Healthy Ways To Handle A Difficult Volunteer by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  16. 5 Healthy Ways to Handle A Difficult Volunteer ... on November 15, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    […] It’s one of the most paralyzing problems many leaders face. How do you handle a difficult team member? Want to make the problem worse? That's easy. Imagine the difficult team member is a volunteer…  […]

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