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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Making Staff Evaluation More Engaging

I still dread performance management, especially annual evaluation of staff. I’ve built a structure that makes evaluation conversations doable, but they still make me so anxious that I want to run away and hide. Recently, Frederick Buechner collided with Harvard Business Review in my morning brain, and I started to wonder about adding a new question to the evaluation process—Should we alter course?—that could draw me out of my anxiety into a richer and more meaningful evaluation conversation.

I don’t think I’m projecting when I say most of us dislike annual evaluations. We dislike them from both sides—as supervisors and as employees. Ministers in particular struggle with evaluation because, as people who—many of us—dislike conflict, we don’t want to be judged and we dislike judging others, especially out loud and face to face! Just the thought of evaluation makes our hearts pound and starts an internal rant about how pointless they are.

Even when we are committed to taking our responsibility for evaluating others seriously, we still struggle. We can have a brilliant vision or mission that guides our work; we can have clear job descriptions that align with the vision and can be done in the time allotted; we can even have metrics for success that are relevant and measurable! Even then, evaluation is still hard.

Liking to be liked

Part of the problem may be that anything that threatens our inner commitment to being liked makes us anxious. And when we’re anxious, we get tunnel-focused on whatever’s in front of us:

  • The task at hand: “Let’s just say what has to be said and get out the heck out of here!”
  • The other person: “How are they feeling? Why do they keep looking at their phone? Are they going to yell? Will they quit?”
  • Self: “My voice sounds weird. What was I supposed to say next? I am so bad at this! Why is this my job?”

It would be inappropriate to completely shift our focus—after all, we are there to talk about the other person’s work. So we usually have a job description and a list of accomplishments in front of us. If there have been problems, we may have documentation of past behavior and suggestions for improvement. We may have important questions about how the employee is feeling or what the congregation can do to better support them. We may have changes to the job description to propose.

But what’s in the room—task, self, other—is such a limited view of our work together. We need a more expansive horizon, a question that draws us out of our anxious space and into a freer, more engaging space. We need a question like, “Should we alter course?”

Making staff evaluation more engaging

I encountered this question in an article, “Strategy-Making in Turbulent Times,” by Michael Mankins and Mark Gottfredson, in the Harvard Business Review. The article made the point that companies used to be able to forecast how markets would evolve and how competitors would respond. As a result, they could define and execute a multiyear plan. But now the world is changing so quickly, businesses can no longer plan for every eventuality. Instead, they must adopt planning techniques that anticipate and account for volatility.

I’m not going to go into the five steps outlined in the article, other than to say that I’m glad churches don’t have to simultaneously keep track of the world’s environmental concerns, changing safety standards, political instability, global monetary policy, advanced technological breakthroughs, and the way these interrelate. What caught my attention was a paragraph on monitoring corporate performance, in part because it sounded so much like my experience of evaluating individual performance:

“At most companies performance monitoring amounts to little more than reporting the weather. The leadership team meets … to review each unit’s performance…. In some cases leaders push for better performance; in others they simply revise the plan to accommodate the variances. In such situations performance reviews provide little if any useful surveillance….

To become more adaptable to rapidly changing conditions, leaders must approach performance monitoring with a new mindset. The central question cannot be “How did we perform?” Instead, it must be “Should we alter course?”

Stop and frame the moment

As I read those words, I had also just read the first chapter of Frederick Buechner’s book, The Remarkable Ordinary. Buechner talks about the way haiku tries to “put a frame around a moment” to make it visible. He says that not only haiku, but all writing, all art, has the capacity to ask us to stop:

One of the things I’m always looking for in my old age is a way to stop the chatter that goes on inside all of us…. You can escape the little world that’s inside your skin …. into something richer, realer, more immediate, and more shimmering, even if it’s only the moment of the frog jumping into the pond.

Art, says Beuchner, helps us to stop by putting a frame around something and making us see it in a way we never would have in our normal routine.

For me, the question Should we alter course has the potential to reframe all our usual evaluation conversations. It draws us out of our anxious focus on task, self, other toward something “richer, realer, more immediate and more shimmering”—what God is calling each of us to do in service of this community of believers at this time and place. It takes seriously the inherent wisdom of those we supervise and beckons us into a deeper conversation about how we’ve understood the purpose of our work in the past—and whether God might be altering that purpose even today.

I don’t have employees anymore, but I wish I had thought to ask a question like this back in the day. I think it would have made for more meaningful conversation.

Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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