How do you avoid tumbleweed moments?

You are in the team meeting and have just announced that you have a new piece of work to allocate. “Who wants to take it?” You get the usual response you have come to dread. Various pairs of eyes around the table look up to the ceiling, or down to their shoes, people start fidgeting or playing with blackberries, they might gaze hard at someone else who they believe “should” take on the task…Tumbleweed starts to roll through the office, little tornadoes of dust swirl by and you swear you can hear the distant strains of the theme music from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly……

Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration but this kind of scenario is often described during my coaching and training programmes and there are many different ways of addressing it. I would love to hear your thoughts on how you make decisions and communicate with team members around the sometimes thorny subject of work assignment.

  • Have you experienced this situation?
  • Should it be a democratic decision?
  • How about the team leader just deciding based on their knowledge of everyone’s workload?
  • How do you deal with those tumbleweed moments?

5 Responses to How do you avoid tumbleweed moments?

  • In my experience as a manager I’ve found that you sometimes have to do a little of both delegating and asking for volunteers. First I always look for who is best suited and most likely interested in the task and balance that with availability. Unless I’m really stuck for resources, I wouldn’t likely approach this situation by asking for any volunteers in a team meeting. I would most likely approach the one or two “best” people and let them know what I need and why I need them. I may ask them to have a decision by the meeting and if someone else also puts their hat in the ring – we’ll discuss it then.

    Part of being a manager is making the decisions, looking for volunteers can backfire and make you look like a weak leader. You have to know your team and the specific situation but in the end, they’re looking to you for leadership; you don’t want to compromise that.

  • When you ask for a volunteer, you put people on the spot. They are being asked to claim the necessary expertise, and that exposes them to risk of failure, because they may not know what your expectations are.

    However, if you outline the expertise required, and nominate one or two people who fit the bill, others might be prepared to jump in and claim an equal qualification, now that they know your expectations.

    • Hi Phillip. Thanks for your comment. I agree that we need to be making it as easy as possible for people to step up without feeling put on the spot.

  • Thanks for contributing to the conversation Beverley. I like your descriptions of why people do or don’t volunteer.

  • Hi Jullie
    I certainly have experienced it and I don’t think it’s always an easy thing to manage. There are many variations of how people will react when work is assigned.

    You have the people who volunteer because:

    1. It may be something they will enjoy doing and don’t think of the consequences
    2. It’s an opportunity to make their mark and show off their talents
    3. The know that they can do the job well
    4. They feel they ought to
    5. They think if they don’t it could be held against them

    You hae the people who don’t volunteer because:
    1. They realise they couldn’t take on any more work
    2. It’s outside their area of expertise
    3. They’re not interested in the particular task
    4. They can’t be bothered
    5. They’re afraid they won’t be able to manage

    I think the manager firstly has to make a decision on whether they are going to allocate a particular task or make it part of a democratic process ie discussion and this will depend on the context and the task itself.

    If the manager is making the decision, then they need to have thought it through thoroughly and be able to explain to a team memember why they are being allocated the work. They also need to be prepared for someone to say no, and consider what they would do about that.

    If the decision is made by a democratic process then I think they need to be aware that the same people may keep offering and be aware of them overloading themselves. Sometimes the manager may have to say ‘Id like someone to volunteer who hasn’t volunteered before.’

    To minmise those ‘tumbleweed moments’ a manager should have a good knowledge of the current workload of their team members and listen equally to what’s said and what isn’t said.

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