Reevaluating Staff Evaluations

By Zach Mural

For most program supervisors, preparing and delivering staff evaluations is about as much fun as getting a root canal. Most of us are required (and even fundamentally understand the necessity) to evaluate a staff member’s performance on a regular basis, yet, for several reasons we find the process and ultimate result unsatisfactory. Why is this? If we agree that giving staff feedback and opportunities for growth are important, what about the process is so disagreeable?

Let’s start with what most of us typically do. We pull out a form (probably supplied by our predecessor or HR) and begin rating specific skills and completing a series of prescribed questions about duties and overall performance. In the best circumstances, there is a space to share positive observations and areas where improvements can be made (the classic “sandwich” statements). And, while there is technically nothing wrong with these forms or the approach, more often than not it feels like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

The reality is this model of performance evaluation is dated, limited, and generally fairly ineffective in supporting morale, growth, and professional development. With that in mind, here are a couple of ideas to think about and use differently in order to help make your evaluations less cumbersome and more effective as tools that promote ultimate goals.

Waiting To Provide Feedback
The first significant problem with the approach above is that it is dependent on artificial deadlines imposed by a calendar rather than an actual performance. A friend of mine once told me that he doesn’t believe in New Year’s resolutions because anything that he wants to change or do differently shouldn’t be put on hold. The same is true of performance reviews. When you see staff members doing extraordinarily well, they should know that you notice, approve, and are pleased with their work. Similarly, if someone is doing something incorrectly or inefficiently, waiting to share that feedback until a future date just allows more time for that person to make the undesirable behavior a habit (which will be harder to change), and the current program and participants suffer. To that end, the most effective supervisors provide constant and consistent feedback to their staff in an effort to support and celebrate positive practices and to quickly reduce negative behaviors and attitudes.

Menus Are For Restaurants
Another problem with the typical approach to performance reviews (no matter how closely they align with job responsibilities) is that it is overly reliant on a predetermined rubric and set of expected behaviors. Yes, it is important that each and every employee has a job description and that he or she is accountable for all of those responsibilities. However, not everyone does everything in a job description on a regular basis, and I have yet to see a performance form that adequately addresses the “other duties as assigned by supervisor” that is so common and so important to what most people actually do. Instead of using a template for the actual review, I encourage supervisors to take a look at the actual job description and create a narrative summary of the areas of strength or needs for improvement.

A second issue with checkboxes, rating scales, and fill-in-the-blank evaluations is that too many are structured to require the “sandwich” approach in delivering the content. It is critically important to let a staff member know what is going well, and every employee has things that could be better. However, structuring a review for an outstanding employee so the form must include something to work on, or conversely, highlighting the relative strengths of a grossly under-performing individual, at best dilutes the message you are trying to send and at worst can come across as completely disingenuous. If you have both positive and critical feedback to share, by all means do so, but forcing things into a format to make it easier to swallow generally hurts more than it helps.

Decide What’s Important
The final (and in my mind the most important) issue with most performance reviews is the notion that everyone needs to be highly proficient in every area or skill. Just as you are not great at everything, expecting your employees to be masters of all responsibilities sets them up to fail and disappoint. In my experience, it is much better to assign responsibilities and tasks to employee talent than to force someone to learn entirely new skill sets.

Now, there are two caveats that I need to add. First, some duties or skills are essential, and therefore every employee needs to have a high level of proficiency in these areas. For example, all youth staff must be highly aware of children’s behaviors, possible safety concerns, and an accurate account for every participant’s location and well-being. If someone on your youth staff struggles to keep children safely supervised, regardless of their other skills, that person needs immediate training and support to correct the deficiency. Second, equity matters, and it is unfair to consistently give certain employees tasks they (and everyone else) find undesirable just because they are more proficient in that duty. For example, no on likes being the bearer of bad news, so requiring the same staff member to always have difficult conversations just because that person “can handle it” is not fair and will likely lead to that staff member looking for a new opportunity.

All of that being noted, when an individual is given the opportunity to do something he or she is good at, the person is significantly more likely to enjoy it, succeed, and persist through adversity. By recognizing this reality and eliminating the unrealistic expectation that everyone needs to be good at everything, you can remove a significant burden from your own job. If you have someone who is highly organized, let that staff member organize. Give that super-creative member a creative license with a new program or marketing task. The person who cannot sit still and loves to move will be much happier (and more effective) in leading high-energy activities than being confined to a table or desk. And, by affording a staff member the chance to use real strengths, you will have greater opportunities to celebrate successes and less of a need to address performance concerns.

On Change
I recognize that changing when and how to evaluate staff may not be entirely up to you, and any change (especially at an institutional level) takes time and is difficult. As a rule, none of us make significant, permanent changes until we recognize that the new way yields better results than the old. Even if you are not in a position to make wholesale changes, start small—recognize a strength in the moment with a pat on the back, give someone a responsibility that you know that person will enjoy, and most importantly, recognize that the talent necessary to elevate your programs is probably already there; it’s up to you to put those individuals in situations where they can maximize their contributions to achieve overall goals.

Dr. Zachary Mural is an executive-level leader, youth-development professional, and father. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, is the owner of Youth Development Consulting, is VP of Education for The Minnieland Academy Family of Schools in Northern Virginia, and is an ExpertOnlineTraining faculty member. If you have questions or comments, or would like to discuss a possible workshop or training, visit