By Kris Putnam-Walkerly
I recently fired someone. It wasn’t that he was doing a bad job, per se. The main reason was because his way of communicating with me was to scold me for what he considered my underperformance, rather than encouraging me to do better. This professional (for whom I was the client, paying him) made a point of telling me that my early efforts were “off to a very poor start,” and that all of his other clients were doing a far better job. He even went so far as to get downright punitive, charging me $200 for a missed appointment after I cancelled because of a raging stomach flu.
No one wants to be constantly scolded or treated like a two-year-old, even when they have significant room for improvement (as I do.). Most people know where or when they’re falling short, so pointing that out doesn’t help improve the situation. Instead, why not set a higher bar and encourage people to reach for it?
Here are five relatively easy ways to take an inspirational approach:
- Tell them you believe in them. Saying to someone, “I know you can do this,” is far more motivating than questioning their abilities. It also sets a positive expectation that they will perform at the level you expect them to. If you want to take it a step further, make it clear to the entire team that you know for a fact that Susan can and will do what’s needed.
- Surround them with successful and inspiring peers. Those we work with most closely can have the greatest impact on our own performance. I’m a member of a global learning community of some of the world’s leading consultants. We bolster one another’s skills, learn from each other’s experiences and mistakes, and take turns being leaders in the areas in which we excel. That’s inspiring all the way around.
- Ensure they have appropriate support. Even the most talented staff member may fall below his or her anticipated performance level if the needed supports aren’t in place. For example, can you really expect your program officer to spend time networking and building new relationships if she’s also expected to handle all of the administrative functions related to her grant portfolio? Can you fault a program manager who falls behind on grants processing when you forbid remote access to your files while he’s traveling for work? The last thing you want to do is inspire someone to climb higher if there are no rungs in the ladder.
- Help them figure out course corrections. Everyone hits roadblocks. The difference between being inspirational or deflating someone is in how much you’re willing to help find the way around. This doesn’t mean doing the work for them, or making excuses for them. It means helping them evaluate the obstacle and determining the approach that will work best for them. As a consultant, I use this practice frequently. I know that what I would do in a given situation may not be the best solution for my coaching clients, so I ask a LOT of questions — about what they see as the main obstacles, what they consider viable options, what the pros and cons of each might be, what resources are at their disposal, and what feels like the best solution for them.
- Applaud their success. I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t like to be told that they’re doing a great job, or that they really made a difference, or that they’re just downright awesome at something. As part of your process to inspire someone, don’t forget to point out what they’ve done well. I’m not suggesting balloons and confetti here – just a simple, “nice job!” is really all it takes to makes someone feel great about themselves and their abilities and ready to do more.
None of these approaches is unique to philanthropy or even the professional world. They’re also useful for building the confidence of your bridge team or golf partner, for leading a volunteer committee and even for raising kids.
Of course, not everyone can live up to this level of inspiration all the time. I certainly don’t think I offered any words of inspiration when I let that person go. But in retrospect, I wish I’d said something like this: “It’s clear that you have an eye toward helping others improve, and with a little coaching on interpersonal skills, I think you’ll become a very valuable and valued asset to many more clients.”
If you’ve got a great tip for inspiring change in others rather than scolding them about their shortcomings, I’d love to hear it. Please share with me and I’ll send you a complimentary copy of my forthcoming book, “Confident Giving.”
Kris Putnam-Walkerly, the president of Putnam Consulting Group, is a recognized expert and leader in philanthropic strategy development, implementation, evaluation, and communication. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.