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BLP TIG Week: Trina Willard on Presenting the Power of Bad News

My name is Trina Willard and I am the Principal of Knowledge Advisory Group, a small consulting firm that provides research and evaluation services to nonprofits, government agencies and small businesses.  With nearly two decades of work in the evaluation field under my belt, I’ve had many opportunities to engage leaders in discussions about evaluation and organizational development.  Across all sectors, executives and leadership teams almost always identify benefits to evaluation, but likewise disclose concerns.  Today I’d like to address one of the most common objections I hear:

“But we can’t evaluate!  What if the results are bad?”

Let’s face a stone cold fact: every organization has at least some room for improvement. Are the leaders you work with concerned about measuring results because they fear evaluation may reveal that their organizations aren’t flawless?  If so, their organizations are vulnerable to risks that could blindside leaders when they ultimately come to light, perhaps publicly.  As evaluators, how do we make the case to clients and colleagues that bad results aren’t actually so…bad?  These three strategies have worked well for me in my consulting practice.

Hot Tip #1:  Give an example.  We all have a cautionary tale of an organization that resisted evaluation and paid dearly for it, perhaps from personal experience.  Use it.

Hot Tip #2:  Paint the picture for change.  Revelations about products, programs or services that feel negative or problematic are often seen as threats.  However, reframing that notion, to one of opportunity, can be very valuable in altering the leadership perspective.  Committing to an evaluation does not suggest a willingness to demonstrate failure; it demonstrates a willingness to always improve.

Hot Tip #3:  Challenge the choice of reaction versus action.  Be direct and ask this question: “Do you really want to wait until a problem takes root, jeopardizing your organization’s future before you begin to examine what needs to be improved? Or do you want to know now, so you can address it before it’s too late?”

What tips do you use to encourage leaders to face their fears and evaluate, thereby driving organizational decision-making and future success?

Rad Resource:  Analytics at Work: Smarter Decisions, Better Results by Thomas H. Davenport, Jeanne G. Harris and Robert Morison.   Look inside to discover numerous examples of how leaders use data to make decisions, across organizations with diverse circumstances and analytic capabilities.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Business, Leadership and Performance (BLP) TIG Week with our colleagues in the BLP AEA Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our BLP TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.


5 thoughts on “BLP TIG Week: Trina Willard on Presenting the Power of Bad News”

  1. Hi Trina,

    I read your post with great interest. I am currently taking an evaluation course as part of my masters program and am interested in understanding how evaluators, or members within a given team, convince others within the organization to embrace evaluation. Studies by experts such as Shulha and Cousins, Weiss, Saunders and others are pointing towards a model where there is some level of collaboration between evaluator and stakeholder in order to see evaluation results acted upon. In an article I read by Carol Weiss it sounds as if evaluation results may be embraced if the results are fairly benign and don’t require a great deal of change. Although in some cases the results may indicate small adjustments to a successful program/endeavor in many I’m sure the results are quite different. Your article title, Presenting the Power of Bad News, says just that!

    In your article you have suggested some strategies for getting clients to get on board with the evaluation process. These hot tips all sound like a great starting place, however, are there times when you come into a project with leadership buy in but the results end up being unfavorable to the leadership? How do you support leaders embracing the results/recommendations? As well, there are likely times when an individual is suggestion an evaluation be conducted as an internal stakeholder as opposed to being an external service provider like yourself. Would your hot tips change for them? How should they approach their leadership team to encourage them to embrace evaluation even if the results are perceived as bad?
    Thanks again for your thought provoking article!

    Best Regards,

  2. Hi Trina,

    Any leader committed to making data-driven changes and decisions would benefit from the meaningful information that an evaluation can produce. As you said, every organization has room for improvement, and working with the organization to pinpoint the opportunities for improvement is work that should be welcomed, not feared.
    Since leadership is a process where the leader influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal, the leader should see the evaluation as an advisor of that common goal. The leader must dream the dream first, but if that dream and direction they wish for others to go to is supported by data produced by an evaluation, that leader then becomes one who a follower can trust.

    When leaders face their fears and commit to the evaluation process, perhaps the next time when a program needs designing, as part of a partnership strategy, the leader will invite an evaluator to be partners in planning and implementing program from the very start. When a leader gains experience with the evaluation process, they might realize the benefit of including an evaluator during the program planning and implementation stages of their program.

    I do wonder what is more fearful; committing to an evaluation with the fear that the results are ones that may expose “opportunities for improvement,” or committing to use the findings of an evaluation and pursue the change that is required for the improvement? When a leader must lead their followers through change, this adaptive leadership process can be challenging for the followers. But when a leader commits to an evaluation, the act is challenging for the leader because the results may be seen as a personal reflection of their leadership. We can only hope by viewing an evaluation as an opportunity and concrete strategy for improvement; a good leader will recognize its value and whole heartedly commit to the process.

    Thank you for the hot tips of persuasion!

  3. Dear Trina,
    I was very intrigued when I read the title of your article, Presenting the Power of Bad News. You have identified a problem that I have seen not only in my own experience teaching in the Independent School System, but as a challenge for many evaluators aiming to improve or assist businesses. As I probe further into the evaluation process, I wonder if the Utilization Focus Model as designed by Michael Quinn Patton might be useful when working with industries and leaders who may be reluctant to change. Do you think that engaging the stakeholders in the evaluation process would yield more positive results? If the focus for companies, who have ample data at their fingertips, is usability and meaningful use, would they be more open to feedback that finds areas for improvement if they were part of the evaluative process?
    Patton also asserts that we must speak truth to power. I am wondering if you agree and if so, what is the most effective way you would go about doing this? You mentioned that engaging participants in direct questions and framing the information in a way that supports change as opportunity is important. By coming to a shared understanding of what needs to be achieved, perhaps there would be an enhanced commitment to improve. If evaluation is not onerous but rather it is seen as an active and engaging process, I wonder of there would be less resistance to change.
    One last question I had was whether or not you find that cognitive bias are a mitigating factor when presenting or interpreting evaluation results. I know that as I engage in evaluations in the private school sector, many teachers only want to utilize the data that supports their current practices. Is this problematic in the business world as well?
    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and suggestions here. Your comment, “but we can’t evaluate. What if the results are bad?” really confirmed the idea that people are often reluctant to change and evaluators have to be aware of that as they provide feedback in the best interest of all parties.

    Thanks for a great read.

    Rachel Marks

    1. I also work for an independent school district, so I found your comment interesting. While reading this, I thought about teacher evaluations that happen once a year. From my experience (working with middle schools) I found that most teachers were eager to learn what they could approve on. I liked that you had counter questions to the original post. I enjoyed the post because from my experience, when someone (especially those who are not comfortable with change) receive negative feedback, or hear that their way-of-doing-things could be improved, the response is usually negative. So I think that the Hot Tips are a great way to put a positive spin on bad news.

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