The following article was originally published on August 4, 2004.
I lead a faith-based, non-profit organization after fifteen years as a mid-level executive in the wireless industry. Working with board members and volunteers is tough sometimes. My difficulty comes in creating safety and expressing my concerns when people do not deliver on their commitments. Given the volunteer nature of both parties, I want to appreciate their desire to serve, not alienate them, and yet I want to let them know things that need to be done are not getting done. Can you help me?
Talking through tough issues with someone in a volunteer organization is a lot like dealing with peers or someone at a higher level in any organization. You cannot rely on position, power, or the threat of losing employment to get the other person’s attention. If you are too heavy-handed, you risk creating offense; if you sugarcoat or water down your communication, you minimize the problem. What to do?
Consider the following tips:
Start with Heart. Make sure you go into the conversation with the right end in mind–you want to solve the problem of someone not keeping a commitment in a way that preserves and enhances the working relationship. You don’t want to shame. You don’t want to make the other person feel bad or wrong.
Master Your Stories. Ask, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person not keep his or her commitment?” It might be a motivational problem (he or she didn’t WANT to do it) or an ability problem (he or she wasn’t ABLE to do it). Which is the case? You don’t know! Don’t assume the worst; don’t tell yourself a villain story. Be curious, not furious.
Get Unstuck. Decide at what level the conversation needs to be held: content (first time), pattern (it’s happened before), or relationship (how it affects the trust and respect between the two of you). If the problem is a pattern of a behavior that you’ve dealt with before, don’t just talk about the current instance. Talk about the fact that it keeps happening and discuss what you can do to keep it from continuing. If it’s starting to affect how the two of you work together, address that issue, and discuss what you’d like from your working relationship.
STATE your Path. Start with the facts of what’s going on, not your conclusions about why it’s happening. An effective way of sharing the facts is to compare what was promised with what happened. Don’t make accusations (“You didn’t keep your promise.”) Don’t make statements of emotion (“You make me so mad!”). Instead, try, “you told me the report would be ready by Monday. It’s now Tuesday and I still haven’t received the report. What happened?”
Move to Action. Remember at the end of the conversation to document “Who does What by When,” to clarify the plan going forward. This will ensure that everyone knows what is expected, and help them understand what they’ll be accountable for. Be sure to follow up. This will still be a difficult conversation, but handling it with these principles and skills will increase the probability of solving problems in a way that builds both respect and your relationship.
Best of luck,