Propagating urges for others: how to work well with volunteers

I’ve had a fair bit of experience working with volunteers, both at CFAR workshops and previously as a theatrical stage manager.  It’s difficult – sometimes volunteers are flaky, failing to keep commitments and also failing to warn you about it (this happens with paid staff too, of course; but there’s a characteristic situation with volunteers I want to focus on).  I’ve seen a lot of people in this situation (including myself) get pretty frustrated with their volunteers, not know what to say, and end up either overloading the few reliable volunteers they do have, or just resolving to do everything themselves from now on.   It feels impossible to “get” volunteers to work hard if they’re not magically already motivated.

Does this remind anyone of their relationship with their System 1?  You just “don’t feel motivated” to do some things, because they’re boring, or not fun.  A lot of people seem to have just accepted that System 1 will never get the importance of a bunch of the things they need to do.

CFAR has a technique to try and help resolve these sorts of internal motivational difficulties called propagating urges.  Roughly speaking, it involves trying to trace the causality of your goals: if I want to take action X, why?  What makes me want to do it?   You’re looking to find stuff that feels viscerally motivating, even if you have to go several layers down (eg rewrite this paragraph of my term paper -> get a better grade -> get a better job -> do interesting work).  

You have to check that the ultimate thing is

  1. “Yummy”
  2. Caused (at least probabilistically) by the proximal action
  3. Not more easily achieved elsewhere (I bet it’s hard to work on that term paper if you’re sitting on a super cool job offer from your dream company…)

If all the checks come back right, then you try to take that causality and compress it down into a single emotionally punchy image or metaphor (as in this or this post), which you can then bring to mind when you’re considering taking the action.  The goal isn’t to make your S1 like the action, per se – it’s to explain the actual, true causal structure in a way that makes sense and is easy to recall.  Like if a guy is carrying around a picture of his kids in his wallet, and pulls it out to look at sometimes, he’s not trying to make himself love his kids – he already loves them, and the picture is just a succinct reminder he can use to bring those feelings to mind whenever he wants.  Your image should be the same way.

I’ve developed some tools that seem to help me more effectively lead volunteer teams, which mainly revolve around analogues of this technique.  The premise is that people generally work hard at tasks and projects they care about… and they generally care about projects that will help them achieve their goals.  When someone’s getting paid, usually that’s the goal in play – the pay is contingent upon their work being of a certain quality, and the money allows them to achieve a broad variety of other goals.

But a volunteer isn’t being paid, which means their reason for working on a project is less clear – but nonetheless crucial to motivation.  The key (well, one key) to having motivated volunteers is figuring out what goals they’re trying to accomplish by working with you (or what they could be accomplishing), and making sure they understand how the task at hand ties into that.

When you ask someone to do something, explain how the task’s completion will cause something they care about.

This requires having a model of your volunteer’s goal structure, as well as a clear sense of why each task you assign is important.  It takes a lot more time than just handing out requests, but it often causes a massive increase in attention paid to the task, especially if you further explain why completing the task excellently will work much better than doing it poorly.

For example, at CFAR workshops we have to take out the trash maybe 4-5x/day, and we need someone to check whether the trash is full maybe 20x/day, because anytime the trash bin is overflowing then people don’t know where to put things, clutter accumulates, they’re distracted from learning, and also they think maybe CFAR doesn’t know anything about rationality since they can’t even keep the trash can empty (totally not joking.  It’s tough calling yourself a rationality organization).  I always make a point of explaining this to whoever gets assigned to taking out the trash, because otherwise they typically check it 3-4x per day, because that’s enough for them by default to feel as though they haven’t defected on the agreement.  Just saying “check it 20x/day” feels unreasonable and excessive.   The person has to see why the extra work causes the workshop to run more smoothly, and thus cause CFAR to have more positive impact, etc.  [This is assuming the person’s volunteering at the workshop because they want to see CFAR’s goals furthered; many of our volunteers are there at least in part to hang out with new participants and get a refresher on the course material, which needs to be addressed differently]

When you have this conversation, you want to hit all three parts of the propagating urges “yum factor check” – make sure that your volunteer actually:

  1. Cares about whatever bigger goal you’re trying to motivate them with (eg skills growth, or community appreciation)
  2. Sees a causal connection between that goal and the task at hand (this may involve multiple inferential steps; don’t be surprised if they don’t get it right away)
  3. Doesn’t (even implicitly) believe there’s some easier way to get the big picture thing to happen

This last one is interesting, because it means you should always go into this sort of conversation prepared to find out that you were wrong about taking out the trash being important.  If the volunteer pushes back on you about the usefulness of the task, try to take them seriously – I really have changed the way I run workshop operations because I was trying to make someone do something and they kept not doing it, because they thought it was pointless, and then when I tried to explain why it wasn’t they just came up with a better way of doing things.

Then, if you can, you make some sort of brief recap/punchy image or phrase that hopefully sort of sticks in their head and comes to mind whenever they work on the project.

The end result is that your volunteers feel like agents taking goal-directed action, rather than (unpaid!) characters in a Dilbert cartoon strip.

I think this is directly analogous to the process that one ought to undergo internally when doing traditional propagating urges.  You’re not trying to manipulate this volunteer, you’re just trying to show them how this task will actually work towards their actual goals.  That’s crucial to why it works, as well as why I feel comfortable doing it (with myself, or with others).

(Duncan has written a post fleshing out some of these ideas and others around working with volunteers if you’re interested in more good thoughts on this subject)

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