I’ve been on several boards for not-for-profits and organizations.

The toughest moment in any meeting is when we identify an issue or opportunity that needs a leader. That’s when we hear someone ask, “Who’s willing to take this on?”

Crickets …

How can we create a better outcome?

Before you ask for someone in a group to volunteer, it helps to know two things.

Everyone’s brain is in resistance. People are silently cataloging all of the other things they have going on. Some of these may be things you’ve already asked them to do.

They’re afraid. Of overwhelm. Of not doing a good job – on this or all the other things they must do. Of failing or looking foolish in front of others.

None of this has anything to do with you. So the silence you hear isn’t necessarily reluctance.

Everyone is in bystander syndrome. You’ve heard about this. A common example is someone being attacked in a city at night and calling for help. Most people who hear the pleas believe that someone else will respond, so they don’t.

This also occurs when people aren’t certain they need to take action. Let’s say someone has fallen down in a crowd, and people keep walking past without taking notice. People look at the reactions of others (who aren’t helping) and assume help isn’t needed because no one else is doing anything.

People sit around and wait for someone else to step up.

What Can You Do to Engage a Team Leader?

You have a number of options.

1.     Prep people beforehand. If you know you’re going to ask a person to take the lead during a meeting, make that clear in the agenda or email they receive in advance. Don’t just surprise them during a meeting: let them work through their fear and resistance – or create excitement about leading – earlier.

2.     Speak the truth. Try saying something like this. “I know we’re all feeling overwhelmed by the other things we’re doing, and that’s why each of us might hesitate to champion this initiative.”

Let people feel seen and heard, and this makes them more comfortable about volunteering. Then choose one or more of the next approaches.

3.     Get group buy-in through discussionContinue with, “Let’s take a minute to answer the question ‘What will happen if we do nothing about this?’” or “What benefits will we see if we do address this?” Let them convince themselves and each other that taking action on this has merit.

4.     Explain the benefits of leadership. You likely know the people in this group and some of their goals and desires. Explain how this is in keeping with what they want for themselves: recognition, the chance for advancement, visibility among influential people, etc.

5.     Tell them about the support they’ll get when leading this. People need to understand they won’t have to do everything alone and will have some assistance and resources. That helps to reduce their fears.

6.     Ask for a “show of hands.” This works well with volunteer groups. “How many of you already are leading a project for us, raise your hands?” Then people can look around the room and 1) see who already is stepping up (which gives those folks some recognition) and 2) see who needs to make a greater commitment (why not use peer pressure in a motivating way?). 

Thank the people who are working to advance the group. Then ask those who aren’t already contributing to join them.

7.     Pick someone. Studies show this is the best way to break up bystander syndrome. If you’re in trouble in a crowd, and you look directly at someone and say, “I need your help!” that person nearly always responds.

This works with your team, too. Say, “[Name], I really need your help to lead this. You’re really good with [something similar], which is why I think you’d be great.” You’ve given someone recognition first and then made your request. That also shows there’s a reason and not just randomness behind this.

 Assume Goodwill

If you’re requesting that others step up, do so with a positive mindset. (Learn more at “You Have More Brains than You Think.”)

Believe that most people want to help the organization and, given the chance, do so. This will help you ask with the confidence that you’ll receive, which encourages others to come through.