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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How to Pull out of a Leadership Lull

Every leader at some time in his or her leadership will face multiple leadership lulls. We have a down Sunday. A new ministry doesn’t take off. Someone expresses disappointment in us or criticizes us. A seasonal program doesn’t bring as many new people as we expected. Sometimes those lulls can push us into a downward spiral from which it becomes difficult to pull out. Understanding what goes on in our brains offers insight on how to pull out of a leadership lull.

spiral downward

Our brains actually contribute to downward cycles. When we feel disappointed, a brain chemical that helps us feel positive, dopamine, drops which causes us to operate more from an emotional mode rather than from a thoughtful mode driven by the thinking part of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex). This decreases our performance because we enjoy our ministry less which in turn leads to decreased confidence. The spiral continues downward as our decreased confidence dampens our mood which further drops dopamine.

When we face such scenarios, five simple steps can help us move from a downward spiral to an upward spiral. God created our brains to provide doses of dopamine which makes for greater well being in our leadership and in our lives. This in turn can improve our performance which in turn opens us to fresh spiritual and leadership insight. As a result we receive a confidence boost about the future. Thus, we move from a downward spiral into an upward one.

Consider these five ideas to try the next time you face a leadership lull.

  1. Take some time to read a few uplifting portions of Scripture about hope, God’s grace, and joy.
  2. Write down the expectation that was unmet. Was it unrealistic given the current circumstances? Can you adjust the expectation downward to bring it more in line with current circumstances or with what God is telling you?
  3. Think of something unusual or outside-the box that could apply to this situation. Is there a unique or novel way to frame or modify your expectation? Novelty helps boost brain chemicals that help us gain perspective and think more clearly.
  4. Take a small step to accomplish something related to this goal or focus on another goal. Make the goal one that you can accomplish rather easily and quickly. After you do, take another small step. Each successive accomplishment will boost your confidence as it boosts dopamine. Accomplishing even small tasks from our daily to-do list has been proven to boost dopamine.
  5. Call a friend you trust who can help you think through the situation. Often we simply need fresh perspective from an objective friend.

The next time you face a leadership lull, try one or two of these simple steps and see what happens.

What have you found that helps pull you out of a leadership lull?

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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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Are you a Mary or a Martha Leader? Take this Quiz to Find Out

One of the most famous stories in the Bible describes Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead. The story contrasts two kinds of living and leading: one a frenzied, driven style shown by Martha and the other a reflective style seen in Mary whom Jesus commended. In this post I include a personal inventory a leader can take to discover his or her leadership style.

leadership

Greg McKeown who authored the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less captures Mary’s style with his definition of what he calls an essentialist.

“The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless (p. 7).”

I’ve included Luke’s account of Jesus’ visit below and follow it with a 10 statement self-assessment you can take to discover which of the two styles your leadership is most like. I’ve based the assessment from insights I drew from the story.

Luke 10:38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 41  “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Martha or Mary Leadership Style Inventory

As you take the assessment, grade yourself in this way.

  • If the statement is never true of you, give yourself a ‘0.’
  • If it’s sometimes true of you, give yourself a ‘1.’
  • If it’s often true of you, give yourself a ‘2.’
  1. The urgent often crowds out the important. 
    • Martha’s busyness in the kitchen caused her to miss what was most important.
  1. Projects often take precedence over people. 
    • Martha’s project and busyness to make a meal trumped being present with Jesus. Author and pastor Chuck Swindoll writes, “Busyness rapes relationships. It substitutes shallow frenzy for deep friendship. It promises satisfying dreams, but delivers hollow nightmares. It feeds the ego, but starves the inner man. It fills the calendar, but fractures the family. It cultivates a program, but plows under priorities. (Killing Giants, Pulling Thorns, p. 79)
  1. Everything has to be done perfectly.
    • A simple meal would have sufficed for Jesus, but not for Martha.
  1. You feel a nagging feeling of oughtness.
    • Martha had to attend to the details that had to be made.
  1. You often show insensitivity and impatience toward other people.
    • Martha yelled at Jesus for not sending Mary into the kitchen to help.
  1. You feel resentment about others who aren’t as driven.
    • The story reveals Martha’s resentment toward Mary’s lack of helping her prepare the meal.
  1. You convey a demanding spirit with others.
    • Martha demanded that Jesus tell Mary to help.
  1. You have difficulty concentrating on one thing at a time.
    • The scripture uses the word worried to describe an agitated state of mind which certainly inhibited her ability to concentrate and focus.
  1. Delays easily frustrate you.
    • Ditto what I’ve written above about Martha’s response.
  1. You often experience sunset fatigue.
    • This term sunset fatigue comes from John Ortberg. He describes it as coming to the end of your day with no energy for important things like being present for your family. Martha must have been exhausted after Jesus’ visit, not because of Jesus’ presence, but because of her misplaced priorities.

How did you do? Here’s the scoring key.

  • If you scored 0-3, you’re in good shape.
  • If you scored 4-6, take 2 baby aspirin.
  • If you scored 7-12, take 2 extra strength Tylenol.
  • If you scored 12-20, you might need Valium.

If you found yourself more like Martha than Mary, consider three ways to counter a Martha driven leadership style.

  1. Slow down your pace of leadership. Once when the pace got too frenetic, Jesus told his disciples to get away to a quiet place and rest (Mark 6.31). Slowing down involves not just slowing our physical pace, but our mental pace as well.
  2. Reflect more often to discover what is most essential. Martha was in such a rush that she failed to reflect upon what was most important at that very moment, being with Jesus. Jesus preferred her company over her service at that moment. Life will not automatically arrange itself into the correct priorities. We must regularly stop to reflect so we don’t miss what’s most important.
    • McKeown tells a story in his book that illustrates this idea. He tells about a man whose three-year-old daughter died. In his grief the dad put together a video of her short life. But as he went through all of his home videos he realized something was missing. He had taken video of every outing they had gone on and every trip they had taken. He had lots of footage. That wasn’t the problem. He then realized that while he had plenty of footage of the places they had gone— the sights they had seen, the views they had enjoyed, the meals they had eaten, and the landmarks they had visited— he had almost no close-up footage of his daughter herself. He had been so busy recording the surroundings he had failed to record what was essential (p. 236).

  1. Put first things first. Jesus told Martha that “One thing is needed.” Sometimes we simply must narrow our choices to put first things first. The word priority kept its singular focus until the 1900’s when we pluralized the term. We often need to step back from the pace of life and leadership to make sure we have prioritized what is truly most important, keeping ourselves moored to Jesus as we lead.

As Jesus said, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

What has helped you become more of a Mary leader?

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