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.

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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