“How do I conduct an annual staff evaluation in the middle of a pandemic when my church hasn’t performed one in over the last five years?” asks a pastor who is almost a year into her new position.
The Dread of Staff Evaluations
In my experience as a former pastor and in my consulting with churches and denominations, the annual “staff evaluation” or “performance review” is often a practice that most staff persons — and lay leaders — dread.
At its best, the annual evaluation provides an opportunity for pastoral leaders to be acknowledged and encouraged for their contributions in ministry while mutually discovering opportunities for growth.
But at its worst, the evaluation becomes a toxic minefield where pastoral leaders are subjected to criticism and attack from anonymous evaluators. The performance of various functions is often reduced to a number. Critical feedback is so far removed from the actual incident that very little learning and growth can take place. The appraisal often ignores systemic factors that negatively affect the performance of individual staff. The power difference between the evaluator over the appraisee raises anxiety and fears, while limiting mutual trust, honesty, and insight.
In their book, Accountability: Freedom and Responsibility without Control, Lebow and Spitzer write: “Too often, appraisal destroys the human spirit. . . . They don’t work because most performance appraisal systems are a form of judgment and control.”
I have found that a coach approach evaluation or appraisal process mitigates many of the shortcomings of a “judgment and control based” approach, especially in light of the disruptions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Three Elements of a Coach Approach to Staff Evaluations
Below are three elements of a coach approach to staff evaluations that can strengthen an organization while potentially be enlivening and energizing for the evaluator and the appraisee!
- A Coaching Mindset
According to the International Coaching Federation, a coaching mindset is open, curious, flexible and client-centered.
In a staff evaluation, the “clients” are the staff members (including the leader!). A coaching mindset approaches the evaluation from a place of acceptance, connection, and care, and not from a place of judgment, critique, and punishment. It is grounded in the belief that each staff person is capable in their job, is responsible for their own actions, and wants to contribute to the flourishing of the organization.
Questions for a leader considering a coach approach to staff evaluation:
- How open, curious, and flexible is my mindset toward those I’m appraising?
- How attached am I to my beliefs regarding how my staff ought to be doing their jobs?
- How willing am I to discuss my own contribution to a staff person’s “low performance?”
- How willing are all participants willing to check their power and privilege at the door?
- What’s the level of mutual trust among the staff and the organization?
- What’s the level of anxiety in the staff, in the organization, and in me?
2. Clear Agreements
Any helpful evaluation requires clear job descriptions and policies that provide a mutually accepted criterion for evaluation. However, it is also important that any unspoken expectations be made explicit. Bringing those expectations into the light of day may stimulate thinking regarding whether they are reasonable, healthy, and productive in meeting the needs of the organization and its staff.
In my experience, one source of negative evaluations is often the result of relationship conflicts arising from unmet unspoken expectations.
Marie Miyashiro writes: “[M]ost interpersonal conflict in the workplace are systems issues and not people issues. If we mediate between people and ignore the system within which both work, we are putting time and resources into fixing a symptom and not the cause. . . . [T]eam members who aren’t performing the way we would like can be gifts because they often point to flaws in our workplace systems” (The Empathy Factor, pp. 156-7).
Examples of systemic flaws might include inadequate training, a lack of staff resources, unclear communication, and a culture that punishes transparency and honesty.
Before the evaluation session, it is important to establish trust and safety for all involved. Staff members can co-create an agreement of the expectations and values governing the session so that each person can show up fully and authentically without fear of reprisal.
Questions to consider:
- How clear are we regarding the purpose, mission, and values of our organization?
- How clear is each staff member regarding their job description and expectations?
- When a staff person is “under-performing,” to what extent is that a reflection of a flaw or lack of clarity in our workplace system?
- How clear and strong is our agreement regarding trust and safety during our evaluation session?
3. Less an “evaluation” and more a “joint inquiry”
A coach approach evaluation functions less as an evaluation and more as a joint inquiry into the functioning of the staff and the organization. Similar to many coaching conversations, this evaluation will recognize and celebrate what went well while exploring with curiosity and truthful inquiry around what didn’t go so well. This process may require some training in active listening for staff members.
Instead of relying on “objective” numbers and rankings, this approach acknowledges that all evaluations are subjective, based on one’s own perceptions and interpretations. Therefore, all participants — including the appraiser, if that person is also a staff member — are encouraged to “show up fully” by offering up their inner world — their feelings, needs, hopes, anxieties, and fears — to help others understand the intent of their behaviors and the impact of others’ behaviors on them.
If the leader is conducting the evaluation, it requires her to “take a dumb pill” and not assume expertise in the “proper” functioning of the staff person being appraised. Indeed, the evaluation cannot be solely limited to an accounting of strengths and weaknesses based on predefined performance criteria. Instead, the evaluation invites a joint exploration into a staff person’s current roles at work in the broader light of their life’s journey, hopes, and calling. Staff members are not merely human “doings”; they are human beings needing to be fully seen for who they are, and not solely for what they do for the organization.
A coach approach to staff evaluations works only to the extent there is equally shared power by all participants during the evaluation process. Individual feedback and evaluations are not one-way, given by a “boss” to an “underling.” All participants show up first as human beings rather than as functionaries in a hierarchical organizational chart. All participants are being appraised in a “360-degree” inquiry, and no one can “pull rank.” What is shared within the evaluation cannot be used against a staff person afterward.
As such, this coach approach may not be appropriate in an organization whose culture mainly operates from a “top-down command structure,” where fear and distrust run rampant, and relationships are strained among staff members.
What a Coach Approach to Staff Evaluation Might Look Like
Personal reflection and feedback
For example, one way to conduct this inquiry (in a staff of up to 8 persons) is for the staff to sit in a circle (or in a Zoom room) and for each staff person to be appraised to answer these questions. (You may want to co-create this process and questions with your staff so that there is a mutual agreement.)
- What were my greatest contributions this past year?
- What made them so important to me?
- What held me back (especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic)?
- What, if anything, would I do differently, knowing what I know now?
In response, the other staff persons are invited to offer their thoughts to the following questions. (Someone can record these comments on a flip chart under the headings: Value, Insight, and Potential.)
- What is the one thing I most value about working with you? Why?
- What insight have I gained by listening to what you’ve just said?
- What is one area where I sense great potential in you?
The staff person being appraised is then invited to reflect and respond to this feedback, and identify what they will take away from this conversation.
Repeat this process until all staff members have shared their thoughts, received feedback from others, and identified their take-aways.
Empower future growth and mutual accountability
Each staff person is then invited to look toward the future by sharing answers to these questions. (Someone can record them for future reference.)
- What am I most excited about accomplishing this coming year?
- What could help me contribute more fully?
- What concerns me most?
- What do I need to stay on track? How can you help?
- What professional development will help me grow in my current role and for my future?
From this information, the staff can co-create action steps and support structures to empower future growth and mutual accountability.
Prayerfully connect to your organization’s calling
Finally, the staff as a whole can prayerfully reflect on these questions (used by The Center for Courage and Renewal founded by Parker Palmer) to connect the staff’s functioning to the organization’s calling, toward a “place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger coincide” (Frederick Buechner).
- What do we as an organization truly long to do?
- What is our organization’s offer to the world?
- What could help us step more boldly into the life that wants to be lived through us?
From this information, the staff can co-create action steps and support structures to empower the growth and flourishing of the organization into its calling and mission.
Final check-in and gratitudes
The evaluation may conclude by inviting each staff member to offer a one-word description of how they are feeling or a word of gratitude.
The Goal: Energized Staff Working as a Team to Accomplish Their Organization’s Mission
When done well in an appropriate setting, a coach approach to staff evaluations can contribute to an energized and committed staff working as a team to fulfill their organization’s mission.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps a silver lining in the midst of tragic disruptions is that we now have the opportunity to disrupt the unhelpful ways we’ve conducted staff evaluations. Instead, we have an opportunity to try out new ways to conduct a joint inquiry into staff functioning that is more human-focused and humane for the sake of the life-giving purpose and mission of the organizations we serve.
Please contact me if you would like a free consultation on how to design such a staff joint-inquiry for your congregation or organization.