Delivering Negative Evaluation Results (Part 1) by Kylie Hutchinson

AEA365 Curator note: Back in January, AEA365 readers asked to read about how evaluators deliver negative findings to clients and stakeholders. This week, we feature 5 articles with four evaluator perspectives on this topic.  

Hello! I’m Kylie Hutchinson, independent evaluation consultant and trainer with Community Solutions Planning & Evaluation and author of A Short Primer on Innovative Evaluation Reporting.

Delivering negative evaluation findings is possibly one of the hardest things an evaluator has to do. Accomplishing it effectively is a bit like Goldilocks’ porridge. Too harsh and direct and you’ll make people defensive. Too indirect and they may not take action. Just right and they’ll use the results moving forward. I definitely admit to totally bungling this task at times. Here are a few practical tips for presenting bad news gleaned from my own experience. (Note that these ideas won’t work in all circumstances; their use depends on the context of a specific evaluation.)

Hot Tips:

  • Build trust. People can’t learn when they feel nervous or threatened, and we want them to fully absorb and understand what we’re saying. Effective stakeholder engagement, at the beginning and throughout an evaluation, is critical for building trust and developing stakeholder ownership of the final results, both good and bad.
  • Prepare them early. Prepare stakeholders for the possibility of negative results by engaging them in an informal discussion early on in the evaluation, e.g., “How well do you think the program is doing?” or “What would you do if the results were not as you expected?”
  • Drop clues. During the data analysis phase, consider giving the organization small warning signs, such as, “It’s still early days, but we’re seeing lower than expected scores. Can you think of why this might be so?”
  • Be clear. Be prepared to explain in detail how the negative findings were derived and ensure the lines of evidence are crystal clear. The more lines of evidence you are able to demonstrate, the easier a bitter pill might go down.
  • Let others do the talking. When the news is particularly bad, I usually include a greater number of quotes from the qualitative data so people can hear it straight from the horse’s mouth and not me.
  • Consider participatory data analysis. Rather than the evaluator being the bearer of bad news, let people “discover” the bad news themselves by inviting them to a data party and asking for their assistance with interpretation.
  • Don’t send an email bomb. As Chari Smith says in her post, never, ever email a final report without going through it with people first. In some instances, program managers may appreciate a heads up and the opportunity to meet privately to digest the news and plan their response prior to meeting with staff. Nobody wants a nasty surprise or to be put on the spot during a public presentation.
  • Give people time to digest. In other instances, you might wish to give the results to everyone ahead of time so they can fully process the evidence before meeting with you. Then you’re not faced with a barrage of defensive questions from people who haven’t had time to read the full report and understand how you reached your conclusions.

Stayed tuned for more tips in Part 2!

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.

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