by John Wimberly, The Alban Institute
As I lead seminars on management in the church, one of the single most vexing issues raised by participants is evaluation of personnel. Pastors and lay leaders sense that the traditional model for annual performance reviews is broken. It is. In a best-selling book aptly named Get Rid of the Performance Review!, UCLA management expert Samuel Culbert is one of many making the case that we need to eliminate these annual reviews that most managers and employees detest.
However, the problems with performance reviews need to be viewed in a larger context. Our concern should be focused on organizational, not individual, performance. Using traditional performance reviews, we are measuring the performance of individuals when we should be measuring the performance of organizations. With the traditional model, we can end up with a bunch of individual employees who are "performing above expectations" even as the organizations in which they work struggle or fail. Isn't there a contradiction in such a situation?
For example, in the Washington, D.C., public school system, a large percentage of teachers get well-deserved high ratings on their individual performance. However, overall, the school system is failing at its job of educating children. There is little correlation between how individual teachers are performing and how the larger system is performing. Individual goals are being met, but the organization's goals are not. In an ideal organization, the success of individual performances would be aligned with and contributing to the success of the organization.
How do we break through our chronic emphasis on individual performance and refocus our attention on system performance? Working in teams is an important strategy to that end. When we work in teams, we have team, not individual, goals.
Teams are being used in some of the world's most successful businesses. Japanese corporations have used teams to propel their nation from the devastation of World War II to today's economic superpower. Hospitals have developed the team concept in places such as emergency and operating rooms. Southwest Airlines has used a team model to make money while other airlines struggle.
It is ironic that the business world is so far ahead of religious organizations when it comes to teams. From a theological perspective, team approaches should be a natural for religious groups. After all, the idea of working together for the common good is at the heart of the theology of the world's major religions.
What was the first thing Jesus did in his ministry? He recruited a team to help him accomplish his mission. Even the Son of God needed a team to heal the sick, challenge injustice, and proclaim a message of God's love!
Our current models of personnel management look at individual output first, organizational output second. Team thinking rightly reverses that prioritization. A team is concerned with the performance of its individual members primarily to the extent that individual performance impacts the performance of the team as a whole. Think of the athlete who, at the end of a losing effort, says, "It doesn't matter that I did well. We lost." Such an attitude reflects an athlete who has bought into the team concept.
The key to having congregational effectiveness isn't "Is each individual team member reaching his/her goals?" The relevant performance question is "Is the team reaching its goals?" Using a team approach in Christian education ministry, for example, the emphasis isn't on the individual performance of a congregation's Christian educator. The focus is on the performance of the entire team charged with performing Christian education ministry?volunteers and staff.
In the context of a Christian education team conversation, it may be that the team (1) has members who need to improve their work; (2) needs to add certain skill sets to the team it doesn't currently possess; (3) doesn't have what it needs (money, facilities, curriculum, etc.) to accomplish its goals; or (4) exists in a larger congregational system that is dysfunctional in a way that inhibits the performance of the Christian education team.
The team model is also able to make use of ongoing evaluation. Performance reviews don't take place annually. They take place daily as the team works toward accomplishing its goals. "Why are we lagging behind here? Why are we succeeding there?" are the daily questions that begin to drive performance. Why wait until the end of twelve months to evaluate whether or not a team is meeting its goals? If the team is not performing well, it has the added burden of having gone a year without making the changes required to meet the goals.
Using the head of staff-individual employee model for performance review, the underperforming employee has some easy ways to avoid taking responsibility. To name a few, he can decide the head of staff is being unreasonable, doesn't understand the challenges he faces, or dislikes him personally. However, when a team evaluates itself, an underperforming team member has to face the judgment of the entire team.
Can the team member still dismiss the evaluation? Of course. But, it is more difficult to ignore the judgment of a bunch of people than an individual boss. As important, perhaps the team can figure out ways to compensate for the underperforming member, using that person's skills in better ways.
Rule #1 in management is: when things aren't working, don't keep doing what isn't working. Annual performance reviews haven't worked for a long time. Teams do work in sports, business, the military, and elsewhere. Isn't it time to place team effort at the heart of our work in congregations?