How to Push Toward Excellence (with Heart)

What to Say and How to Say It

Published: August 23, 2021
Estimated reading time: 3 min


Have you ever needed to push a staff member or a team for more but didn’t know how? Maybe you needed to see a more realistic plan for equitable outcomes, attention to timely communication, or next-level ideas. Perhaps you tried with some success, but your attempt to inspire a big reach landed like a reprimand.

When we say push, we don’t mean shoving someone into the deep end without a life raft; we mean setting a high bar and being honest when something needs improvement. Done with care and compassion, this kind of feedback can strengthen the work and the people. It’s also a core part of your job as a manager.

Start by cultivating rapport and building a culture of regular check-ins and feedback. From there, focus on what you say and how you say it.

Here’s some language you can use to push people (in a good way). Tip: Always start with connection and curiosity.

On deadlines
  • “So that I understand better, what’s involved in making this happen? Do you think you can finish X step this week instead of next week?”
  • “Suppose we had to get this done by Thursday. What would it take to do that?”
On quality
  • “This one piece doesn’t feel up to your usual standard of excellence. What would it take to get it there?”
  • “What would you do with this if you were able to spend a little more time on it?”
  • “I’m picturing (major funder/community partner) seeing this and wondering about X. What do you think it’ll take to strengthen this?”
On racial equity and inclusion outcomes
  • “I really appreciate X in this plan. How do you envision engaging the communities most impacted by that?”
  • “What barriers are creating the disparity in participation/access for X community? What explicit objectives (systems/advocacy/resources) could we add to address this?
  • “Walk me through the feedback that emerged from X project (in terms of who felt included/excluded). What will you do to prevent that next time?”
On implicit bias and navigating lines of difference
  • “In Y project/meeting, what did you notice about who participated? I noticed X. What can we do moving forward to have more balanced participation?”
  • “What are the biases you have to check before you make that decision? For instance, when you look at the last decision you made on [hiring, feedback, delegation, outreach, etc.], do you see any unintended consequences you can address proactively?”
  • “X team member let me know they shared feedback with you about how Y impacted them. It sounds like this was a tough moment. What was your experience of the situation? What did you learn from what they shared?”
On sustainability and pacing the work
  • “Imagine you could take X weeks off with no big consequences for the work. Talk me through what would need to shift or drop. What’s in the way of that?”
  • “I know Z situation is really hard right now. What do you think you can [change, share, delay, reassign] while you take care of what’s needed [at home, with an unexpected work issue, etc.]?”
  • “When you think about X project as a marathon (not a sprint), what’s one thing that—if we changed it—would set a realistic pace for the next six weeks?”
On the logic or feasibility of an idea
  • “Here’s what gives me pause about that… ”
  • “Can you say more about how that would work? What’s a realistic example?”
  • “I can imagine someone hearing this and saying X—what would you say to that?”

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