Staff Performance Reviews: Do they Help or Hinder?

As a senior pastor I’ve performed annual staff performance reviews for years thinking that I was helping those leaders improve their performance. But recent neuroscience has shown that negative feedback (including such feedback given in evaluations) may actually hurt the self-esteem of those we evaluate. If staff evaluations potentially hurt the cause rather than help, should we eliminate the evaluations or make some other changes? In this post I answer that question.

"If you had ..."

The researchers in one study performed a simple experiment on college students. The students first performed a mock interview. Afterwards as they lay in an MRI, they received evaluation on their performance through 45 separate words given by someone who observed their interview. The words were equally divided into 15 neutral ones, 15 positive ones, and 15 negative ones. Even though the positive and neutral words outweighed the negative ones 2 to 1, over 40% experienced lower self esteem. And, the part of the brain that feels rejection from others lit up in the scanner. Negative feedback apparently diminishes our self-esteem.

I understand this insight from personal experience. Years ago a key leader told me numerous times that although I possessed great character, my preaching didn’t connect with other people’s hearts nor did I have sufficient leadership skills to bring the church to the next level. After reading about this study, I now understand why I felt so bad after his comments.

In light of this and other similar studies, how should we approach staff reviews to avoid diminishing the esteem or confidence of those we review? I suggest five ideas that can help us maximize reviews while minimizing their potential negative effect.

  1. Constantly affirm those who report to you. Catch them doing something good and tell them. Create an environment filled with affirmation.
  2. Seek to know the personality of the staff person you are evaluating. The study implied that some personalities ruminate and mull over negative comments more than others. If you know a staffer tends toward introspection, give the feedback with an extra dose of grace. Follow up a few days later to see how they are processing it.
  3. Teach your staff to build their self-esteem around their relationship with Christ rather than around their performance. Doing so doesn’t minimize high performance standards. Rather, it maximizes where we should center our self-esteem and frees us to do our best.
  4. Couch your feedback with positive steps the staff person can make. Help him see that positive corrective steps can make him a more fulfilled person and a more effective employee.
  5. Discover how well you affirm others. Ask your staff to tell you how well they feel you affirm them. If you get negative feedback, re-read this article.

What have you discovered that helps moderate negative feelings from staff reviews?

(Source of study: Eisenberger et al, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, November 2011)

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Do You Problem Solve too Much as a Leader?

Good leaders help team members solve their own problems with their own insight. Average leaders tend to solve their team members’ problems, thus truncating their opportunity to grow themselves. So, how do we help our team members learn to problem solve on their own? In this post I begin with a story and then suggest ways to problem solve in a balanced way.

archimedes

Archimedes was a brilliant Greek scientist. He lived 250 years before Christ and is best known for inventing a method to determine an object’s volume. A goldsmith had forged a crown of gold for the Greek king, King Hiero II. The king was concerned, however, that the goldsmith has substituted the cheaper metal silver for some of the gold. He asked Archimedes to find the truth without melting the crown.

This stumped Archimedes until a flash of insight hit him. One day as he took a bath he noticed the water level rise as he stepped into the tub. Suddenly he realized that by making a few mathematical calculations he could use water volume displacement from the crown to determine if it were made of pure gold. In his excitement, so the story goes, he ran into the streets naked crying, “Eureka, Eureka!” which means in Greek, “I have found it.”

Thus, we use the word “eureka”  for personal insight. Through this insight he discovered that the goldsmith had indeed substituted silver for some of the crown’s gold, a not-so-good discovery for the goldsmith.

Leaders tend to be tellers.

  • We cast vision by telling.
  • We communicate goals and strategies by telling.
  • We recruit leaders by telling.
  • We manage staff by telling.
  • We teach by telling.
  • And we tend to solve our team’s problems by telling.

When a team member comes to us with a problem, it’s often expedient to give a quick answer if we see the solution. We tend to be more experienced so it can be easy to see the solution. But when we solve their problems too quickly, we can create other problems.

  1. We can inadvertently foster dependency on us to solve their problems and diminish their motivation to follow through because people are less likely to act on somebody else’s ideas.
  2. We can rob them from learning how to problem solve, an important leadership quality.
  3. We can diminish opportunities for them to experience the joy of those ‘eureka’ moments.

I believe this is the key to helping your team learn to solve their own problems: ask questions.

Jesus often asked questions when he wanted to teach important concepts. The Gospels include 135 questions Jesus asked. He asked questions to create readiness to learn and to get his listeners to think for themselves.

Consider five compelling reasons to ask your team more questions.

  1. Questions help your team see reality more clearly. One more well-placed question may surface an important issue about their problem they are trying to solve that they otherwise might have missed.
  2. They help foster innovation. Questions can spur new ideas and solutions to problems.
  3. They help your team self reflect. Telling someone an answer may stifle her need to thoroughly think through the answer for herself.
  4. They provide perspective. A good question can open up a fresh perspective to a perplexing dilemma.
  5. They help your team focus on the real issue.

Asking good questions can become a potent team development tool to put into your leadership toolbox. 

An interesting brain process occurs when we get a eureka insight.

Several different brain waves course through our brains every day. During sleep, your brain produces delta and theta waves. When we’re awake and our brains are at rest (i.e., during daydreaming), alpha waves occur. When we are awake, alert, and focused on something, the beta wave is most prominent. But the fastest wave is called a gamma wave that sweeps through our entire brains over 40 times per second through a process called synchrony. Similar to what happens to an orchestra when a conductor raises his baton and brings the whole orchestra to attention, the gamma wave sweeps through our brains and brings it to attention when we experience a eureka insight. Several benefits occur from the gamma wave.

  • New brain maps get formed in the eureka moment.
  • The brain’s right hemisphere which processes information intuitively and holistically increases its activity by making subtle connections. This fosters insight by connecting disparate bits of information which otherwise may have seemed inconsequential.
  • The brain produces the feel good neurotransmitter dopamine. As a result, a eureka insight actually feels good which makes us want more insight experiences.
  • The solution to the problem, the eureka insight, gets stamped deeper into our brains creating greater ownership to the solution and more motivation to follow through on it.

So what can you do to ask more and better questions to foster eureka insights in your team. Consider three suggestions.

  1. Practice the art of the W.A.I.T.
    • WAIT is an acronym for this question. “Why Am I Talking?” In meetings and conversations with others when you sense you may be dominating, mentally ask yourself this question. It has helped me listen more carefully and talk less.
  1. Ask the question, “What do you think?”
    • This handy question helps when you sense a team member wants you to solve his problem. You may immediately know the answer, but if you answer it too quickly you may foster unhealthy dependency on you that you want to avoid. So when a team member asks you to solve his problem, first respond with, “What do you think?” Remember, self generated insights create better buy-in than quick answers.
  1. Use the AWE question.
    • Michael Stanier suggests this question in his great book, The Coaching Habit. AWE stands for, “And What Else?” He suggests we use this question 3-5 times in a coaching or problem solving conversation. He calls it the best coaching question in the world. It helps pull out insight from a team member that might be missed if you end the conversation too soon.

Try one or more of these suggestions when a team member wants you to solve his or her problem.

What kinds of questions have helped you develop your team?

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6 Ways to Add Interest to your Leadership Training Meetings

There are good meetings and there are bad meetings. I’ve been in and led both kinds. I once attended a webinar lecture that was definitely a ‘good’ meeting. The facilitator used a technique that leaders can use to increase attention and retention in their leadership training meetings. Here’s what she did in that training meeting that you can try to improve yours.

3D render of meeting room with projection screen and conference table

First, some background about my state of mind as the meeting began. Drowsy from a poor night’s sleep and in a brain fog because of too many carbs for lunch, I forced myself to log in for my class. Had I been given a choice, I would have taken a nap instead. My attention level was low. However, the professor used several simple techniques to rouse my attention. As a result, I learned a lot from the lecture.

On one power point slide she printed a single URL. She cued up the slide in this way. She said we were about to do an exercise that required us to focus for 30 seconds on people in the video who wore white shirts and were throwing a ball to each other. We were to count the number of times they passed the ball. She also commented that most people’s attention span lasts only 12 seconds.

Immediately part of my brain alerted other parts to pay attention because something was about to happen. These internal dynamics helped elevate my attention with a shot of norepinephrine, a brain chemical related to adrenalin. In this 30 second exercise she literally used 6 techniques that woke me and helped me learn better.

  1. Curiosity: The exercise woke up the part of my brain that is drawn to novelty. Novel things get our attention more easily than common things.
  2. Challenge: I was drawn into the lecture by the prospect of competition with others and with myself. I now wanted to learn.
  3. Motivation: The 12-second rule motivated me. I thought to myself, I know I can pay attention longer than that.
  4. Relevance: Related to the challenge, not only was I good with numbers but the exercise was relevant to the current topic about attention.
  5. Anticipation: In anticipation I sat up in my chair, opened my eyes wider, and felt my heart rate elevate.
  6. Satisfaction: After the exercise, I felt good because I had beaten the odds and gotten the right answer. This good feeling was due to the increase of another neurotransmitter, dopamine, which makes us feel good when it enters our brain’s pleasure center.

The next time you schedule a leadership meeting, try to use several of these simple techniques to increase attention and thus improve learning.

What techniques have you tried that have helped enhance your leadership meetings?

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Rejection: How if Affects Leaders

Disapproval and rejection can sting and wound. We’ve all felt it. What do we do when important people in our lives (or even those that we don’t deem important) reject us? How do we respond as did Jesus when he was rejected and scorned? In this post I unpack this painful thing called rejection.

One depressed person stands lonely, apart from the group

Years ago I experienced deep disapproval and rejection from some key church leaders in the church I was in. Essentially they told me that I wasn’t a good leader nor could I inspire people when I preached God’s Word. I was devastated and the effects lingered for months. At the time I didn’t process this rejection well. In retrospect, however, I now understand why this hurt so much and what to do about it.

God created our bodies and our mental command and control center, our brains, with two overall systems that profoundly impact how we think and feel. Our refleXive system (think X-system) is the one that acts without thinking. When it controls, our emotions often take over. The other system, our refleCtive system (think C-system) is the one that helps us think clearly and biblically when our emotions want us to do otherwise. When our X-system controls, we become highly emotional and reactive which dampens our C-system’s ability to think clearly and objectively. However, when we submit our C-system to the Holy Spirit, we are able to think more in line with the Apostle Paul’s command in Philippeans 4.8.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.

Because I failed to appropriately filter their disapproval with the mind of Christ (His thoughts and perspective), my response prompted my brain to release neurochemicals, called catecholamines, that revved up my X-system. This in turn further diminished my ability to think and lead effectively in these three ways.

  • Mental exhaustion: My brain’s check engine light was always on. One part of our brain (the anterior cingulate cortex) senses inconsistencies we detect in verbal or non-verbal messages we get from others. Because those leaders often gave me mixed messages about my performance (you are a great guy… you don’t inspire people), that part of my brain was constantly ‘on.’ I become mentally exhausted which bred even more anxiety about the situation.
  • Easily defensive: My brain’s impulse control brake pads wore thin. I’m usually able to control my emotions and avoid defensiveness. However, because the stress had tired my brain and body, the part of my brain that helps control impulses and emotions (the ventral lateral pre-frontal cortex) had little ‘brake pad’ left. As a result, I was not able to carry on objective conversations about their perspective, which would have helped. Instead, I became defensive, didn’t listen well to their viewpoints, and reacted to small irritations at home.
  • Inability to concentrate: My brain’s mental etch-a-sketch could not hold a creative thought long without losing it. An important part of the brain (the dorsal lateral pre-frontal cortex) gives us the ability to plan, hold items in memory, and think abstractly. However, I could barely concentrate which impacted my ability to think creatively when preparing a sermon or when planning a new initiative. My brain felt like an etch-a-sketch constantly being shaken causing the picture on it to quickly dissolve. I often defaulted to mindless activities such as looking at Facebook several times daily rather than focusing on the more important mind-taxing tasks ministry demanded.

When leaders feel rejected, these internal processes will occur unless with the Spirit’s power we proactively take action to counter them. In my next post I discuss how we can counter these tendencies when we feel rejected.

When others have rejected you, what negative consequences have you seen in your leadership?


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The 7 C’s of Great Ministry Leaders

I recently read a great article by Brad Powell on the 7 C’s of great ministry leaders. I’ve heard of the three C’s before, but his 7 captured the essence of great leaders. Here are his 7 C’s.

Leadership concept
  1. Calling: we must have a sense of God’s call where we currently serve
  2. Character: perhaps the most important, there is no substitute for integrity and a pure heart
  3. Competence: we need the right gifts and abilities to match the needs in our ministry
  4. Confidence: our confidence in the Lord gives us what we need to lead without hesitation
  5. Courage: we must be willing to take unpopular stands sometimes and remind ourselves that we play to an audience of One
  6. Commitment: if we are going to last for the long haul we must be ‘all in’
  7. Continuous growth: a good leader must constantly be learning and growing

What C’s for great leaders would you add (or any other qualities that don’t begin with C)?

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