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Creating the Right Committee Culture

Last week I wrote about common committee challenges and realized that there is one other major challenge that deserves its own post. Here are some signs that your committee may have a culture problem:

  • Multiple volunteers have resigned because it “isn’t the right fit” or without giving cause

  • You hear complaints secondhand, or have another reason to believe there are negative conversations happening in a hurtful way (AKA gossip)

  • Several members of the team have expressed frustration with another member or the team leader

  • Many members aren’t meeting expectations, and others are growing frustrated at contributing more than their fair share

I can’t stress enough the importance of having your leadership committed to setting the example. Your volunteers and committee members will reflect what they see modeled. If you recognize that there is a problem in one of these areas, your first conversations should be with staff and leaders to set your expectations for them.

Do you have a culture of healthy communication?

Healthy communication is:

  • Respectful. This is intentionally first on the list. It should be very clear that the expectation is for members to always be respectful of each other. This includes when someone isn’t present, and in the midst of hard conversations. It encompasses words, tone, and actions.

  • Direct. Far too often I’ve seen committees face ongoing challenges and lose great volunteers because someone was avoiding a hard conversation that would have brought healthy change. Direct communication often needs to happen in the middle of a meeting (“Thank you for sharing your concerns. Can we set up time for me to hear more later?”), right after a meeting (“I’m concerned that your request came off aggressive unintentionally, and Bob didn’t feel respected.”), and during one-on-one meetings, which can address ongoing concerns or lengthier conversations. If necessary, invite another leader to join.

  • Purposeful. Concerns should always be shared in a way that is intended to bring positive change. Otherwise it is complaining or gossiping. Everyone should know the correct person to share concerns with, and do so with respect to fellow volunteers.

Do you have a culture of accountability?

Here is what good accountability looks like for most committees:

  • Leaders set clear expectations of themselves and all team members, with input from the members. I recommend a goals tracker document that shows each major project or to-do item, who is responsible, and the next step or deadline. Update and share this document before and after each meeting, and follow up one-on-one if needed.

  • When someone misses a deadline or doesn’t complete an assignment, others assume the best about their intentions and ask what is needed to meet the goal.

  • If someone misses a meeting or check-in, a leader contacts them directly (in whatever method is necessary) to make sure they receive important updates.

  • There is an opportunity for feedback. Last week I talked about committee surveys – annually or more often – and I recommend sharing the results to build a culture of feedback and accountability.

Do you have a culture of collaboration?

Many committees and leaders have unintentionally signaled that everyone doesn’t have an equal place at the table. And many volunteers will leave an organization where they don’t feel like they can contribute fully.

  • Are all committee members encouraged to bring new ideas and fresh perspectives? Are these new ideas genuinely heard and considered?

  • Is everyone encouraged to share their thoughts and input at every meeting?

  • Are leaders responsive to feedback, showing that someone is heard by implementing changes or giving explanations when not possible?

  • Are committee members able to request assignments or opportunities based on their own interests?

Do you have a culture of gratitude?

In a previous post, I talked about the habit of appreciation – celebrating things that have gone well. A culture of gratitude is deeper, and includes regularly recognizing when someone else contributed to that success. There are many studies and stories showing the benefits of gratitude, both on a personal level and in a team environment. Gratitude fosters connection, teamwork, and authenticity. It can also lead to more productive and committed teams. To assess if this is a culture issue, ask yourself:

  • Does leadership regularly show appreciation for things that are done well, and specifically show gratitude to others for their role in it?

  • Is gratitude expressed in specific, personal ways? “Thanks for helping with a great event” is not nearly as effective as, “Thank you for your incredible creativity in executing the centerpieces. They were a highlight of the evening and I heard many compliments!”

  • Has each committee member had an opportunity to hear how they have contributed well, and had a chance to recognize others?

  • Is the committee receiving appreciation from organization leaders they don’t typically work with?

These are foundations for a great organizational culture. Your specific culture will include other values important to you such as fun (Southwest Airlines), excellence (Apple), innovation (Google), health (Whole Foods), or optimism (Disney). Set your values and culture deliberately, share it with your staff and volunteers, and pursue it with intent.

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