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What Volunteer Work do You do?

At one time in my life, I worked for a temporary agency. One of the assignments they sent me to was at a large manufacturing plant where my job consisted of answering the phone for a department. (Just a quick aside. Why would an organization put a temporary employee in a front-line, customer contact position? I cringe when I remember how many times I said I was sorry because I had no idea how to answer a customer’s question. I was sorry until I realized that I seemed to be the only one who cared.)

During the week I worked there, I overheard the leaders of the department talking about the lack of creativity their people exhibited. Later the same day, I observed the team working out a creative solution to a major problem facing their company bowling team. I’ve thought about that contradiction a lot since then. I’ve learned

I also have learned that when we begin listening to each other, and when we talk about things that matter to us, the world begins to change
–Margaret J. Wheatley, American scientist and writer

that the leaders were right in one way. In an environment that doesn’t expect people to be creative, they won’t be creative. However, those same people will be creative in an environment that challenges them to be creative. I’ve also learned that those leaders could have had a creative workforce if they had asked, What volunteer work do you do?

People volunteer for causes they believe in and for jobs in which they can put their skills to good use. Think about what you’d learn about the hidden talents in your organization by asking this question. You may be surprised by the people you discover. An accountant that coaches a winning soccer team. An administrative assistant who teaches watercolor painting at the local community college. A customer service representative who leads a fund-raising campaign. "So what?" you may ask. So what indeed. Look at the hidden talents you didn’t know about or, more importantly, didn’t expect. This is a question that requires listening to the answer without reaction. You may hear some responses that challenge strongly held beliefs, and it is human nature to let that incredulity show on your face. Keep in mind that a look that expresses surprise or curiosity is okay. Incredulity is an insult.

Many of the specifics you learn when asking this question won’t have practical application–unless, of course, you’d like your administrative assistant to illustrate your monthly reports. But these answers will force you to look at the people you work with through new eyes, seeing different possibilities, and changing some limiting expectations. This kind of challenge is good for a leader.