Nathan Kirkpatrick: How to encourage constructive, honest feedback

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Many churches and institutions ask for feedback yet signal in subtle or not-so-subtle ways that they only want to hear what they’re doing well, writes a managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

I have my car serviced at a dealership that has made evaluation a standard operating practice. Every time I drop off my car, the service adviser tells me that within five to seven business days I can expect an email asking me to rate my experience. Indeed, five to seven days later, there is an email waiting for me with a link to an online survey. Even though the email is automated and probably sent from a computer hundreds of miles away, I admire the commitment and the follow-up.

The problem in their evaluation practice is that the service adviser, in mentioning the forthcoming email, never fails to add, “And, remember, anything less than a ‘5’ [‘excellent’] in any category is failing for us!” When the email arrives, I hear those words in my head and wonder what happens if I give them a “4” (“above average”) -- let alone a “3” (“average”) -- in any category.

Their practice of evaluation encourages the customer service equivalent of grade inflation. As I stare at the questions and look at the possible answers, I am guilted into artificially improving my assessment of their performance, withholding the very kind of meaningful feedback that could actually improve their service.

It is easy to see that their practice is problematic.

It is harder to acknowledge that their practice is commonplace, even in -- perhaps especially in -- the church and religious institutional life. As leaders, we say we desire honest feedback, but then in myriad subtle -- or not-so-subtle -- ways, we undercut that message by suggesting that the only feedback we really want is positive feedback. And in many church and institutional cultures that already tend to privilege being nice over being honest, that often translates into leaders receiving a deceptively reassuring assessment.

So how might we, as Christian leaders, encourage more well-rounded and beneficial feedback?

First, let’s turn a critical eye toward the tools we use to evaluate our ministries. Are they providing us with the kind of meaningful information we need for making thoughtful decisions or constructive changes? Do they illuminate professional or institutional challenges or opportunities in new and actionable ways, or are they structured to affirm what we already know or believe about our context or performance? Do they require significant interpretation to understand, or are they transparent and accessible for leaders with limited time?

Second, let’s experiment with alternative evaluation methods. There are times when using the same form or evaluative structure provides useful year-to-year comparisons that can highlight trends or patterns in performance or effectiveness. The same structure, though, can also lead to a complacent predictability (the equivalent of opening last year’s performance review and just changing the date at the top). New questions and new structures can yield new insights.

For example, institutions that have used nothing but quantitative evaluation tools might experiment with qualitative instruments to see what a “4.7” average looks like as responses to open-ended questions. Or congregations that have privileged individual survey responses might try focus groups that cut across segments of the congregation for a richer, more interactive evaluative experience.

Third, let’s ask the questions we know we need to ask but don’t want to ask. In the fantastic “Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time,” Susan Scott commends the practice of supervisors asking their direct reports, “What topic are you hoping I won’t bring up?” By asking such questions, we empower our direct reports to name their own challenges or deficiencies in their own words, in a way that allows them to ask for help and guidance. By asking such questions, we open the door for liberating conversations.

Often, our evaluative practices avoid asking directly about the elements of our own individual and organizational performance that we know need to be addressed. Yet if we ask the difficult questions, we invite our constituents to become collaborators in our improvement. Their less-than-glowing evaluations can reveal significant resources that can make us more faithful and effective over time.

Finally, let’s commit to cultivating people who have the courage to speak truth to one another in love. Sooner or later, people like me have to admit that a “5” or an “excellent” given out of guilt is actually no help to anyone. We are curtailing the development process. We are hindering ourselves or others. Our organizations and congregations are weakened in their witness in the world. We need the truth to be our best.

But most of us need help learning to speak truth as constructive, honest feedback. We have to feel the weight of truth in our mouths and discern whether others can carry it. We have to learn what is truth spoken in love and what is preference or agenda masquerading as truth. We have to learn tone and timing so that we can be heard. We have to come to believe that others deserve our truth and that we are worth speaking it.

We have to believe that truth is how we learn, grow and change -- that truth is the path of transformation.