Evaluation: Avoiding the blame game

Used with permission.

If your ministry wants to “step up its game,” it absolutely must evaluate itself really well. The only way to achieve better performance is to have a clear-eyed, objective understanding of how you are performing now. Your staff members need to be in a frame of mind where they can take a hard look at what is getting results and what is not and see it as a positive thing to know which programs are performing well and should receive more investment, and which are under-performing and whose resources should be reallocated to something more promising. They should welcome corrective action as a good thing that will help them do even better.

But is your organization ready to evaluate itself?

Evaluation Anxiety

Does your organization and its culture support critical, objective self-evaluation? There actually is a phenomenon recognized in the social sciences as Extreme Evaluation Anxiety (XEA).1 At its worst, people suffering from XEA also suffer from depression and low self-esteem, and they withdraw from social interactions to avoid the possibility of people judging them negatively. That extreme form of anxiety may be rare in the workplace, but there are lots of people who have ordinary anxiety or negative attitudes towards evaluation. If there are enough of them on your staff, no evaluation is going to be helpful because they will work to undermine it. They don’t necessarily have a malicious intent, but they are stuck in their belief that they are performing well, and they naturally think the measurements and standards that support their self-perception are the ones the evaluation should use.

Bringing the topic closer to home for ministry leaders, the authors of Accountability and Effectiveness Evaluation in Nonprofit Organizations discuss the psychosocial problems associated with evaluation, saying that the basic issue is that people like to succeed, and if there is a failure, they prefer not to be seen as responsible for it. The authors call this phenomenon an LGAB attitude: Look Good, Avoid Blame! This can result in two problems:

  1. Their fear of an unfavourable assessment causes them to try to bias the evaluation from the start, when the evaluation process is being designed
  2. Their wish to avoid responsibility for failure causes them to start the blame game in earnest when actual results do not match expected results

The solution isn’t as simple as saying “Don’t worry about the evaluation.” Even though people are told the evaluation is intended simply to reveal problems that might exist and provide information to help resolve the problems, they will still believe that if there are problems, they will be blamed,

The challenge for evaluators is that an LGAB attitude turns the evaluation from an objective process into a political process, and then you might as well save your time and money and not do it.

Avoiding the “Blame Game”

So, how can you avoid the blame game and do the kind of evaluation that will help your ministry step up its game? You need to go deeper than just reassurances to the staff, which may or may not be believed. There are three basic strategies to create an environment which welcomes evaluation. They will take time to implement because staff need to see that what management says to them is, in fact, true in their own experience.

1. Create the right corporate culture

Corporate culture needs to embrace:

  • A commitment to the mission that is greater than a commitment to a program or any other means to an end. People who are passionately committed to the mission will be ready to change or grow for the sake of advancing the mission. So look for passion for your mission, when recruiting and for people already on the team. Do everything you can to build passion for your mission among the staff. Start with yourself. Be sure you have an inspiring passion for your mission and model it for the staff.
  • Seeing projects and programs as experiments. Assume they can always be improved upon by applying what you learn from experience. Everything should be as good as it can be, based on the circumstances at any particular time, but it should be celebrated as a good thing that we can learn from experience. It’s no failure to discover that improvements are possible. The staff should truly believe that “We did the best we could with the information and circumstances at the time.”
  • A willingness to identify and challenge sacred cows. Nothing except your Christian identity should be untouchable. Everything should be up for discussion. Remember, cows became sacred because at one time they were a key success factor. But that was then, and this is now. Whoever created the cow in the first place was probably an innovative person, and in this day with these circumstances, that person may very well be the first to overthrow the sacred cow they once created and create something new!
  • Re-thinking decisions that have been previously made. Like the sacred cow, decisions were made with the best available information at the time. With new information, a different decision might be warranted. Don’t stick with a bad decision just because time and money have been invested in it. The financial concept of sunk costs applies here. You’ve already spent time and money following through on that decision. There is no getting it back. But do you have to keep investing in it when you now know there is a better way? Don’t throw good money after bad! Make a fresh decision today and move on. If you can recoup anything, that’s good, but otherwise, what’s spent is spent. You should always search out a fresh perspective based on current circumstances when making decisions, making the very best decision today that will guide you to the most attractive future.
  • Inquiry and exploration. Reflection, curiosity, and what-if scenarios should be a regular part of organizational life. This will prevent staff from rigid thinking that there is only one way to get a result. If evaluation shows there is a better way, staff should be open to that rather than be defensive about the way they did it.
  • Rational, evidence-based decision making. Resistance to unfavourable evaluation results and resistance to change are often based on emotional, rather than rational, grounds. Train your staff to always look for evidence to support assertions.

In short, we need to identify our organizations as learning organizations, and make every type of evaluation risk-free by treating each one, including individual performance reviews, as opportunities to learn.

Corporate culture must put the highest priority on every person and every program performing at their very best. Every opportunity for improvement should be cause for celebration, because no person or program is perfect, and every improvement helps us better fulfill our mission. The focus should be on how the positive outcome of an evaluation improves our results.

2. Involve staff

Once you have a supportive corporate culture, you can involve staff in designing the evaluation process without fear of political agendas. Staff can help you decide certain critical elements of the review, such as:

  • What will be reviewed and how. It is particularly important that outcomes rather than activities are evaluated.
  • What standards will be applied to the data to determine how good they are.
  • How the final results will be interpreted and used.

Analyzing the final results is a subjective task, so the criteria for how the results will be interpreted needs to be set before the evaluation is done. Human nature being what it is, if the benchmarks for deciding what is acceptable and what is not are determined after the results are known, the bar will be set so that employees achieve the result they want to see.  So before the evaluation is done, answer these questions:

  • What distinguishes between satisfactory and unsatisfactory performance? What objective criteria will you examine?
  • After measuring the objective criteria, how good do the results have to be to be considered poor, good, or excellent?
  • What would it take for a program to be terminated rather than modified? How bad would the results have to be?

3. Support staff

Staff need to understand that evaluations benefit them too. They should know that the purpose of a program evaluation, or even their own personal performance evaluation, is to help the program or them be more successful. In other words, when you do evaluations, you are for them, not against them. The benefits for staff are:

  • Job security: When an organization performs well, jobs are more secure because donors will see the impact the charity is making and want to fund it.
  • Skill enhancement: Evaluations can lead to training for new skills, which enhances an employee’s capabilities and value to the employer.
  • Personal significance: When staff become more successful in their jobs, they have greater job satisfaction and a higher feeling of significance.
  • Greater enjoyment at work: Staff may have more interesting work, or new equipment or work processes that make doing the job easier or more effective. At the very least, they will know that the work they are doing is important work, because they know they are playing a part in achieving great results.

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Conclusion

Evaluation is a critical part of being a good steward of your mission, the people, and the resources that God has given you responsibility for. It is worth the effort to ensure that the culture and the staff support objective evaluation of their work. God bless!

  1. A short article gives a good overview of XEA.
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