By Eddie Pipkin

Performance reviews!  Everybody loves feedback from the boss (right?).  And everybody loves a little constructive criticism (right?).  There is no shortage of articles about the need for ministry institutions like the local church to embrace the corporate model of regularly scheduled and highly formalized job performance evaluations.  But there is plenty of emerging evidence that the traditional model for employee assessment is bad, ministry metrics can backfire, and popular goals like efficiency can be the enemy.

Of course, if you are at a local church or church-based ministry that has any kind of formal, regularized process for assessing job performance, you are in a minority.  Mostly, employees toil away without a systemic approach to recognizing a job well done or strengthening their skill set to overcome weaknesses.  Even fewer places have a systemic process in which underlings are encouraged to share performance feedback about their bosses.  So, it is a very good thing to have such feedback loops in place.  However, the traditional, corporate “performance review” model is not the most effective at actually promoting positivity and a sense of growth among those who participate in it.

This article from New York Magazine, “Everybody Hates Performance Reviews,” is a real eye-opener.  In it, writer Katie Heaney shares that while some 60-90% of workers loath the formal annual performance review process (including the managers responsible for conducting them), some 90% of companies do them.  She quotes UCLA management professor Samuel Culbert on the disastrous premise which underlies such reviews:

The way Culbert sees it, the performance-review dynamic is inherently doomed by the opposing goals of the manager and the employee. “When it comes time for an annual performance review, the employee walks in the room and wants to hear the good things they’ve done, the contributions and sacrifices they’ve made, have been seen, valued, and they’re going to be rewarded,” he says. “And the boss walks in the room to tell the individual their faults.” Culbert, who, by his estimation, has spoken to more than a hundred thousand employees and managers about performance reviews, says that this dynamic erodes trust, often requiring that the person who hired the employee is the same one tasked with “breaking them down.” The manager is essentially forced to find fault with an employee they may be perfectly satisfied with, because if they don’t critique them, HR will think the manager isn’t doing her job, says Culbert.

Such a set-up can’t help but create ill will and hurt feelings.  And, Heaney adds, research shows they don’t work (if your actual goal is to improve employee performance).  Performance improves about a third of the time, a third of the time nothing changes, and a third of the time things get worse (owing to the bad feelings that result from the process).  People feel bad on both ends, and many managers, in order to avoid those bad feelings, give unrealistically high “ratings”: Heaney states that in an average company, 80% of employees are rated “above average” in such reviews – a statistic that is mathematically beyond the bounds of possibility.

A better alternative is to exchange the formal once-a-year approach with regular, ongoing two-way communication that allows goal-setting, goal-celebrating, and skill-building within the context of ongoing projects.  This lowers the all-or-nothing stakes of the yearly free-for-all and promotes a more natural dialogue which fosters a sense of respect and value among all the players and takes advantage of organic opportunities to address issues.

Then there is the problem of the metrics we used to measure success – and we here at Excellence in Ministry Coaching are frequent proponents of the need to employ measurable metrics if you are going to be able to usefully define success in the nebulous world of ministry.  But here, from the website The Hustle, comes another eye-opening analysis, guaranteed to make us question some of our most sacred assumptions: “How Targets and Metrics Are Bad for Business: How the Never-ending Quest to Quantify Worker Productivity Can Go Terribly, Terribly Wrong.”

It introduced me to two “laws” with which I was unfamiliar.

Goodhart’s Law: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Campbell’s Law: The more a metric is used, the more likely it is to “corrupt the process it is intended to monitor.”

The premise is familiar to those of you interested in education who have followed the controversies over “teaching to the test.”  When fulfilling the stat sheets with positive data becomes the be-all-and-end-all objective, we lose sight of the true and noble goals we aimed to serve at the beginning of our quest.

Improperly-defined or ill-conceived targets have produced negative outcomes in these real-world scenarios:

  • They encourage “gaming” the system (e.g., if you pay your grocery baggers by the number of items bagged per hour – whether they’ve been scanned by the register or not – if they find themselves falling behind on their quota, they might start bagging a few free groceries).
  • They incentivize the wrong aspects of work (e.g., if you set a metric of rewarding your computer programmers by the number of lines of code they write, you’ll find they start writing a lot of unnecessary and trivial code to get paid more – regardless of whether it’s useful code).
  • They erode morale (e.g., if your online news site pays its writers by the popularity of the articles they write – regardless of quality or content – they will write more clickbait articles: flashy, tawdry headlines just designed to get people to click on them – which is not really what journalists want to be doing).
  • They can even harm customers (e.g., hospitals which are increasingly evaluated by the number of deaths suffered by patients are turning away critical surgery candidates who are more likely to die while receiving treatment).

Most of us are familiar with the way local congregations who are diligent about measuring attendance, Bible study participation, and the like have fallen prey to some of the scenarios listed in those examples.  If we have the children’s choir sing at both worship services, we get pretty excited about being able to count them twice, since their parents and siblings are in attendance on both occasions (even though they all slip out of the service as soon as the singing is done — but they were there, darn it!).  Butts in the seats are not really what we set out to measure.  We really set out to measure souls who were engaged, but that is a more difficult and thoughtful measure to record with integrity.  Still, it’s the kind of thing we should be sincerely thinking about if we want to see useful results (and even the development of the proper metrics can be a highly productive exercise: just exactly how do you measure whether souls are positively engaged in worship anyway?).

For one last insight into the ways our standard approaches to evaluating performance may not be all they are cracked up to be, here’s an article from the website Farnam Street, called “Getting Ahead by Being Inefficient.”  It explores the idea that focusing on efficiency as a supreme metric gets us stuck in all-consuming routines that keep us from exploring new opportunities:

Efficiency is great in an unchanging environment, but to expect an environment to remain static is unrealistic. Environments change all the time.  When workplaces value efficiency in a changing environment, they become fragile.  Inefficiency, like a genetic mutation, can allow for serendipitous discovery.  Sure, it may produce the same mistakes as before, but if the environment is different, they might actually work now.

Don’t be afraid of a challenge.  Don’t be afraid of not being the best. When you routinely put yourself in situations where you aren’t the most skilled, you learn, you grow, and eventually, you adapt.  You build your repertoire of traits and talents, so when change hits you have a wide array of skills.  This flexibility can also give you the confidence to seek change.

Last week I wrote about seeing the work of ministry from different perspectives.  One of the primary objections that people have to giving others ministry leadership experience is that they will be inefficient in completing projects.  We know who’s best and what jobs, so we keep assigning them the same tasks (“they’re the ones who know how to get the job done – and we really just need this job done”).  But if we are willing to tolerate a little less efficiency, new people get introduced to new ideas and are able to explore their own leadership potential.  Doing things we are not great at can still teach us useful skills that we may someday need.  It can also establish unexpected connections with other people.