Sophia Zaia, a consultant for Powerlabs, shares her key takeaways about using a coaching approach when working with volunteers for the Sunrise Movement’s distributed voter contact program.
Hello! I recently wrote to you about my experience managing a team of more than fifty volunteers in their teens and twenties to organize a voter contact program that resulted in more than six million phone calls and more than one million postcards sent during the 2020 election cycle.
One of my biggest takeaways from that experience was the impact of using a coaching approach, both as a manager in one-to-one conversations and as a team practice that everyone participated in.
When I found myself supporting a team of fifty-plus volunteers on top of my other responsibilities, I realized it would be impossible for me to try to manage each team member individually.
I couldn’t be the go-to person for every question or challenge that came up. Still, I knew this team of young people, most of whom were organizing for the first time, needed and deserved investment in their leadership development and support in the important work they were responsible for.
I also knew that command-and-control management wasn’t the answer. The autocratic approach to management doesn’t work in uncertain and complex environments like winning an election because it’s important to draw on the diverse knowledge, skills and creativity of people doing the work.
The leader rarely has enough information or perspective to make all the right decisions alone.
Command-and-control approaches also reduce the creativity, persistence, learning and motivation of people doing the work.
We decided to split the team into sub-teams of five to fifteen volunteers to fulfill specific functions, such as data collection, phonebank facilitation and debrief/recommitment follow-up calls. We also set up volunteer leaders as sub-team managers and one-to-one managers of their team members. I managed the sub-team leads as a team and one-on-one.
We trained everyone to use a coaching approach, both as managers and as peer coaches, to support one another in working through challenges.
What Is Coaching?
One of my favourite definitions of coaching is by Sir John Whitmore, the creator of the GROW model of coaching. (I’ll say more about the GROW model below.) According to Whitmore, coaching consists of the following:
- Unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance.
- It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.
- Coaching focuses on future possibilities, not past mistakes.
If you are using the GROW model to have a coaching conversation, you would ask the coachee questions to move them through these four steps along the GROW acronym:
- Goal: What do you want to accomplish in the conversation and in the world?
- Reality: What is the current situation?
- Options: What could you try?
- Will: Given those options, how do you want to move forward?
Learn more about the GROW model and get examples of effective coaching questions here.
Using a coaching approach to managing individuals and teams benefits the person doing the work, the coach and the organization.
Benefits of Coaching
The leading theory of motivation, self-determination theory, says people have three basic needs: autonomy, relatedness and competence.
- Autonomy is our need to perceive we have control over what happens in our lives.
We need to perceive that we have choices. Coaching meets this need by supporting people to generate options (sometimes with input from the coach) and choose their path forward.
- Relatedness is our need to care about others and feel cared about without ulterior motives.
When someone is facing challenges or having issues, coaching is about approaching them with care rather than criticism or disappointment.
- Competence is our need to feel we can meet challenges.
We need to grow and learn each day. Coaching supports people to be more effective at accomplishing work they find meaningful.
When those three needs are met, people experience deeper learning, more creativity, greater persistence and improved work performance, as well as improved psychological and physical well-being. In short, when people experience autonomy, relatedness and competence, individuals and organizations thrive.
Without a coaching approach, volunteers’ coaching of other volunteers and my coaching of the volunteer team leads (as well as the coaching I received from others), we never would have built a team at a scale that could recruit and mobilize thousands of volunteers who ultimately made more than six million dials and sent more than one million postcards.
Behind the scenes of Sunrise’s volunteer-led phone bank program: Learn the volunteer team structure that powered 6.2 million dials
Erica Brown, Violet Massie-Vereker, Sophia Zaia and Randall Smith
[1 hour and 20 minute video or 18-minute read]
In the spring of 2020, Sunrise Movement had a goal of making 300,000 dials on six congressional primary races.
They had only one problem: there was only one field organizer on the coordinated side, and Sunrise had never run a phone bank program like this before.
Sunrise decided to create volunteer teams to manage other volunteers, liaise with campaigns, set goals, develop strategy and hold other responsibilities that are often held only by staff. By the end of the election season they had created eight teams of more than 50 volunteers aged 12 to 25.
Sunrise staff and volunteers attribute the choice to build a volunteer team of teams instead of simply relying on staff as the best decision they made in building out their phone bank program. Putting the time and investment into managing volunteer leaders and equipping them with the tools to build out their own teams and co-manage one another increased the strategic and management capacity of our movement, as well as the investment team members that felt in reaching movement goals, and contributed to building the leader-full movement we need to win.
Supporting Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness: The Coaching Process From a Self-Determination Theory Perspective
Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci
Self-Determination Theory began with two strong assertions: First, that motivation differs not only in amount, but also in its quality. Motivation can thus be differentiated into types. Within SDT, the primary differentiation is between autonomous motivation and controlled motivation, which have both different antecedents and different consequences. Autonomous motivation is characterized by people’s experiences of willingness and volition as they are acting in accord with their interests and their deeply held values. Controlled motivation, in contrast, is characterized by the experience of pressure and obligation, commonly associated with acting because of external demands or inducements. As we explain, these different types of motivation have predicted both employee performance and wellness outcomes and have provided a focal point for SDT interventions.
A second SDT assertion is that a true motivation theory must pay considerable attention to the energy for action—to what it is that moves and sustains behavior. SDT addresses the energy issue primarily with the concept of basic psychological needs. These psychological needs are de”ned as the essential nutrients for effective behavior and wellness. In SDT, the fundamental psychological needs are those for autonomy, competence, and relatedness—needs understood to be relevant to functioning across gender, development, socioeconomic status, and cultures. Satisfaction of these needs is critical for self-regulation of daily behaviors and for positive experiences and life satisfaction (Chen et al., 2015; Ryan & Deci, 2017).
Together, these two assertions lead to the empirically based propositions that autonomous motivation is more effective for promoting high-quality performance and greater well-being than is controlled motivation, and that satisfaction of the three basic psychological needs promotes autonomous motivation and a range of positive consequences. Accordingly, we examine how these processes influence coaching.
Highlights of the Opening Remarks from the 5th Conference on Self-Determination Theory (An introduction to the science of motivation)
Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci
[15 minute video]
Watch this video for a brief introduction to self-determination theory and the three basic psychological needs for well-being and performance.
About the Author
Sophia Zaia is an Associate Consultant at PowerLabs where she specializes in improving the effectiveness of staff and volunteer teams.
She has experience both leading and coaching self-managing volunteer teams, mid-level teams and senior leadership teams at the Sunrise Movement, on Jessica Cisneros’ 2022 campaign for Congress, and in the fossil fuel divestment movement.
She directed the Sunrise Movement’s distributed voter contact program in 2020, resulting in more than six million phone calls made and more than one million postcards sent through efforts organized by a self-managing team of fifty-plus volunteers in their teens and early twenties. You can read more about it here and here.
- Efficacy is Essential for Taking Action by PowerLabs
- Reflections on Sunrise Movement’s Strike Circle Program: Learn How We Created Hundreds of Local Teams
- Questioning for Learning, Co-creation and Liberation
- PowerLabs Collection in the Commons Library
- PowerLabs Website
- Movements_Campaigns - Climate action and justice - Sunrise Movement