Ashley and Goldy hugging at Techstars APAC Summit 2017

Dealing with negativity when volunteering

“You should’ve done it this way.” or “This event sucks. What I would’ve done is…”

These comments sound familiar? There’s always this one guy/gal who stands in the corner of the room with a “high-and-mighty” glare, telling everyone but you about what he/she “would’ve done differently” and walks away without ever actually trying to do something.

Yeah. They suck. And I understand. I’ve had my fill of those people in my volunteer experiences too. They bog you and your team down and don’t help at all with the change that you’re hoping to make in your industry or locality. What’s also especially painful is that they are occasionally quite charismatic and are able to influence a small but sizable segment of the community which then affects your reputation, attendee turnout and, most importantly, your team’s morale.

I’ve found a few things that’s helped me handle myself in situations like these over the years and I’m happy I’m finally able to write down the principles I believed in that helped me get through those tough times. I’m hoping that this simplified guideline will help you think through the situation in your own context and help make your plan of action clearer so you can move on and keep doing the awesome thing you’re doing.

Does it make sense?

After crying in the bathroom and contemplating your insignificance in the universe for fifteen minutes, you have to stop and think: Do the criticisms make sense?

Often times, when I get scathing remarks from people, they hurt not just because of how they were delivered but also because they’re true in some level. Stop and think that maybe this is just the person’s way of badly pointing out a flaw that you could genuinely improve on.

Maybe it’s time to call for a retrospective with your team. It’s not just a good exercise that dissects your efforts so far but it’s also a good time and place to help your team let out some steam and hear out how the situation is affecting them. Hopefully, this exercise will help you become stronger together.

Note that I said “for fifteen minutes” in the first paragraph of this section. I emphasized it because setting a time limit, or an equivalent event like a scheduled retrospective, gives you and your team time to process what’s happening and more importantly, gives you a time to stop processing.

Once that time limit is up, decide whether or not the situation is really worth worrying about. If it is, then craft an action plan on how to improve moving forward. If it isn’t, which is often the case, you move on to the next part of this process which is asking…

Why does it matter?

I initially wanted to label this section as “stop caring” but that’s not entirely true. You do care. In fact, you care a lot. That’s why the negative energy, and its effect on your community, is affecting you so much. But because you’ve done the first exercise of dissecting the feedback, now you know that what was being said really doesn’t matter and that all that flak is just hot air and nothing more.

This is another opportunity to refresh what you and your team believe in, what kind of change you are hoping to make and what kind of people you’d like to continue working with in the future. This is the time when you feel grateful that you’ve done the things that you did and to further steel your resolve in continuing what you’re doing.

I’m not gonna lie, this cycle happens many, many, many times for as long as you’re in the position of introducing any kind of change and you come to realize that most of the hot air that comes out of certain people’s mouths don’t matter in the big picture and whenever you spend any amount of head space on them, you’re already the loser.

Whenever I felt frustrated, I’d always end up asking myself “Does what they’re saying matter?” and often times the answer to that question gives me the courage to look up and walk away so that I could continue driving my event/program/effort towards success.

Sometimes in doing this, I suddenly find that tall, dark and unfriendly person standing by my side in creating change one day. Over time, I found that people will eventually want to be productive with their time and if you stick your guns to it, you’ll earn the respect you deserve. Strange, I know. So keep at it and the more you show to people your resolve and willingness to listen to criticisms and be decisive with what you hear, your tribe will find you.

Shout out to Clint Cagang for letting me pick his brain for his experience in doing volunteer work. Hearing your perspective really helped me reflect on mine. Thank you.


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