Monday, February 23, 2015

Newsflash! The Genie is Out of the Bottle

If you pay any attention to social media posts on animal welfare issues you will have noticed that in the last couple of months there has been a flurry of activity regarding freedom of speech and volunteer rights.  Everything from watching an ex-employee spill the beans on the goings on behind the PETA killing machine, to the volunteer handbooks trying to stymie free speech and volunteer's rights, to a court decision in Maryland that protects the rights of volunteers to speak out when they see something wrong. 

Social media has made it increasing easy for people to share their concerns and opinions. Social media has also allowed the general public to access the most current information available. The information is being shared amongst interested parties with the click of the button. We now have volunteers who may know more about life-saving methods than shelter staff, management and board members (I recently had a conversation with a shelter director who had never attended an animal welfare conference or picked up a magazine to read an article.  She was in a time warp, still operating in her 1980's model of animal sheltering). 

We also now have volunteers and members of the public who understand that they have a right to know where their tax dollars and donations go and are demanding statistics and information by filing Freedom of Information requests.  They are then distributing the information they acquire through social media. Pretty much a good thing isn't it? The more that we can expose the under performing shelters, the more lives that can be saved. 

I have to say that I find it more than mildly amusing to watch micromanaging shelter directors trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle. Changing volunteer handbooks, trying to stymie free speech, not permitting photos (even to the point of not allowing volunteers to bring their cell phones to the shelter).  Yes, let's treat our volunteers like toddlers. That's a good way to motivate them. 

Their first attempt to stuff the genie back in the bottle is to discredit a volunteer's concern by labelling them "disgruntled" or "troublesome".  Are there truly "troublesome" volunteers and employees? Of course there are. But they are a very small minority. I don't think anyone can deny that 99% of people that sign up to volunteer in animal welfare do so because they want to help animals. When you hear the same complaints from more than one or two people, it's a big red flag that something is wrong. 

The second attempt to stuff the genie back in the bottle is a shelter director who tries to  to make the volunteers feel guilty about voicing their concerns by saying "This isn't helping the animals.  We all need to work together to achieve our goals."   

So what's a shelter director to do?  Here's my advice. Poof! Let it go. The genie's out of the bottle. Don't waste time trying to stuff it back in. Don't waste time trying to keep control. Focus on saving lives. Focus on being the most transparent, compassionate, volunteer-embracing shelter possible. Listen to your volunteers. Ask for their input. Acknowledge their concerns. Listen to their ideas. Empower them to take leadership roles.  And then see what happens. You might be pleasantly surprised!

The following quote is from a little book that I keep on my bookshelf called Minute Motivators for Leaders by Stan Toler.  His words sum it up nicely: 

"The greatest barrier to effective leadership is the desire to control others.  Tight control breeds low morale and ineffective performance among team members.  Micromanagement stifles the creativity and natural ability that teammates bring to a project.  Good leaders know that more is accomplished by empowering others than by commanding them. ... Motivation, encouragement, inspiration, support - these are the weapons of the greatest generals.  They don't rigidly manage their troops. Instead, they motivate them to achieve the mission.  Leaders give power to the people."

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