Preempting Conflict in Evaluation [Guest post by Patrick Germain]

Oct 2nd, 2012 / Data Visualization /

Patrick Germain


Hi evaluators!  My name is Patrick Germain and I am the Director of Program Evaluation and Quality Assurance at Project Renewal, and the Founder and Director of Performance Management Professionals, a community of practice based in New York City on issues of Performance Measurement and Management and Evaluation.
Organizations are rife with politics, and politics is often the decisive factor in whether evaluations get used. This is the second of three blog posts on how I navigate and influence organizational politics to ensure that evaluation is appropriately supported and used in decision making. You can read last week’s post here.

Week Two: Preempting Conflict in Evaluation

I was once told that I had an “excess of diplomacy.” Although my boss’s tone implied criticism, I took it as a compliment! In my role as an internal evaluator, diplomacy is a must. It takes a long time to gain the trust of program staff, and if you aren’t careful it can all vanish quicker than you can say “But correlation is not causation!”
Let me share a story of how I prepared for presenting my first evaluation to the organization’s senior leadership. I knew there were big risks and big opportunities in this first experience – so I dipped into my “excess of diplomacy” and put it to good use:

Long before any evaluation was conducted, my first goal was to train the managers to “jump to questions, not conclusions.” (“Good Stories Aren’t Enough” Martha Miles). I coached all staff to engage in a constructive conversation about performance data, and not jump to conclusions or cast blame.

Secondly, before discussing the findings in a large group, I sat down with the senior manager, went over the findings, and said “Here is what I see in the data, and if I were you, here are the questions I would ask …” Separately, I sat down with the program director and said “Here is what I see in the data, these are the kinds of questions I would ask if I were your boss, and here is how I might begin to answer them if I were you…”

In the meeting later that week, I asked the CEO to open the conversation with: “We are here to learn, not to judge. Remember, we should be jumping to questions, not to conclusions.” Then, throughout the next hour, the senior managers asked the kinds of questions I had helped them prepare, and the program manager provided the kinds of responses I had worked with them on! When someone got perilously close to jumping to conclusions the CEO would interject with “Let’s stick to constructive questions, please.”

At the end of the meeting, everyone walked away feeling like we had a fruitful conversation, and everyone thanked me for helping them prepare for the meeting. The CEO came up to me and congratulated me on how well the meeting went. As time went on and we continued to have similar conversations, people began to be less fearful or accusatory, and more inquisitive and engaged in the conversation.

Now, this worked for me because each of the individuals wanted to have a good experience with evaluation but didn’t quite know how to do it – I therefore became a resource for them to do their job, not another administrator making them jump through hoops. I made sure to set clear expectations, give the people the ability to meet those expectations, and asked the CEO to support me in appropriately guiding the conversation.
How do you manage conflict as it relates to evaluation?  What strategies have you found successful for building a supportive political context for evaluation?
– Patrick Germain
P.S. Want to learn more? Look for me at the American Evaluation Association conference in Minneapolis, where I will be presenting on some of these issues.

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