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In the coming months I will assist with two evaluation processes – one of a seminary president’s performance, the other, a board self-assessment. When approaching such assignments, my modus operandi is to accentuate the positive before broaching the negative. To paraphrase the author of Proverbs, I've found that a gentle evaluation turns away anger, while a harsh review encourages the one(s) under scrutiny to dig in his/her/their heels.

I’m not alone, I've discovered, in preferring a honey over vinegar approach when delivering the results of an evaluation. Not long ago, I came across an article in the Marketplace section of the Wall Street Journal detailing a shift toward a kinder, more encouraging style in employee reviews. According to the piece, “hard-edged tactics simply do more harm than good these days.”

It’s my hunch such has always been the case. But better that evaluators are catching on late than never.

If there are employee evaluations ahead within the organization where you serve, I encourage you to read the WSJ article for yourself. Whether you’re a board chair gearing up for a CEO evaluation or a supervisor with employee annual reviews on the calendar, the article is worth a look.

Here’s what I will take from it into upcoming assignments.

A spoonful of sugar

When presenting the results of a performance evaluation:

Stress strengths. “Extol staffers’ strengths during reviews and check-ins, explaining how the person can use his or her talents to tackle aspects of the job that come less naturally. . . Help workers not only understand they’re doing a good job but exactly what it is they’re doing great.”

Focus forward. “Hold ‘career outlook’ discussions about employees’ futures at the firm, and not reviews centered on where they dropped the ball over the past year. . . . Embrace Marshall Goldsmith’s “feedforward” concept, which asks employees to suggest ideas for their own improvement in the future, rather than review past performance.”

Streamline suggestions. “Bosses are advised to mention no more than one or two areas that require development.”

Along with the medicine

As expected, some folks worry that too much niceness will lead to mediocrity, and they’re right. It can. All sugar and no medicine is never a good thing. When supervisors ignore or sugar-coat the uncomfortable, “problems can fester and employees will notice when their colleagues aren't pulling their weight.” It’s a reality of organizational life that hard things must be said, sub-par work challenged, and a bad hire (or board recruit) acknowledged.

In fact, as the WSJ article mentions, employees (and board members) want to know where they stand, and evaluations done well should result in improved performance. “Tough feedback sometimes motivates some people better than praise does . . . . Some employees crave critiques more than gold stars,” we’re told.

But that doesn't mean we have to “bring people in and beat them down.” When discussing a performance review, it’s all about the delivery – about making hard news “palatable.” Or put another way, when evaluating others, present tough truth the way you would want it presented to you.

For the sake of the other

Nothing says “we care” like letting people know where they stand, and that’s true whether a performance evaluation is all sweetness and light or comes with a bitter pill. Borrowing from an old adage, an unexamined job isn't worth doing. When conducted well, evaluation strengthens commitment to mission, reinforces mutual accountability, and highlights the individual’s contributions to the whole.

I suppose good can come from old-style slash and burn evaluations, but I’m betting on a gentler, kinder approach. In evaluation, as in all of life, generous matters.

Reprinted with permission from Generous Matters, the fundraising and board development blog of Rebekah Burch Basinger. 

Image credit: Rosmary.

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