Part of this problem comes from MDR’s pretence of objectivity. As ACMDR 2010 puts it ‘MDR is expected to be searching’, and, to achieve this therefore, ‘the reviewer should be able to take an objective view.’[i] This is in defiance of the scepticism of secular critics who have argued that there can be no such thing as objectivity in an appraisal process. Culbert warned:
Most performance reviews are staged as ‘objective’ commentary, as if any two supervisors would reach the same conclusions about the merits and faults of the subordinate. But consider the well-observed fact that when people switch bosses, they often receive sharply different evaluations from the new bosses to whom they now report.[ii]
The claim for objectivity is ‘preposterous’ says Culbert[iii], as it is impossible to separate an assessment of the subordinate’s attributes and achievements from the ‘evaluator’s self-interests’. Accordingly, what you see is what you are determined to see.[iv]
This is a function of what Erwin Friedman called the cult of ‘data deluge’[v] in our society, a cult which is a ‘learned superstition’: it takes the form that ‘[i]f only we knew enough, we could do (or fix) anything’[vi]. The proliferation of data, and the anxiety that accompanies the proliferation (based upon the nagging worry that you have not collected enough of the right kind of data) is analogous, Friedman argues, to ‘substance abuse’: the orientation towards data collection and collation ‘overwhelms leaders… confuses them with contradictory results… [and] emphasizes weakness rather than strength…’[vii].
Friedman’s critique of a ‘social science construction of reality’[viii] was borne out by, ironically, an empirical meta-study of medical research papers. In 2005 John Ioannidis demonstrated that,
assuming modest levels of researcher bias, typically imperfect research techniques, and the well-known tendency to focus on exciting rather than highly plausible theories, researchers will come up with wrong findings most of the time.[ix]
Even in medical research, Ioannidis argues, there is no such thing as objectivity: what you see is what you are determined to see, even if you are unconscious that you are determined to see it. Or, as Ioannidis puts it, ‘claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.’[x]
Ioannidis’ study fundamentally questions ‘scientific’ and ‘empirical’ studies. What are the consequences for the social scientific methodologies as used by some dioceses in preparing data for MDR? In Bristol Diocese’s MDR Questionnaire seven respondents, including the reviewee, grade 64 heads along a double 5-point scale. This is incapable of producing a statistically meaningful result, let alone acknowledges what Friedman calls the necessary ‘emotional processes’:
…in any data-gathering process, attempts to separate out the intellect from emotional processes not only omits a crucial variable, but in effect become[s] anti-intellectual and actually may be down-right “stupid”.’[xi]
Paradoxically, therefore, MDR may only be able to approach ‘objectivity’ by more honestly admitting its conditional and subjective nature:
…the closest one can get to ‘objective’ feedback is making an evaluator’s personal preferences, emotional biases, personal agendas and situational motives for giving feedback sufficiently explicit, so that recipients can determine what to take to heart for themselves.[xii]
The best means of assessing subjectively is within relationship, and one which is based upon equality, mutuality and ubiquity. To investigate the way in which clergy and lay ministers in the Church of England have already experienced this factor and/or its absence in MDR, I conducted an entirely unscientific and subjective straw-poll of ministers within the southern province of the Church in January 2011. The sample was statistically insignificant, and evidentially flawed, but according to Friedman, Culbert and Ioannidis, that was the point. In my straw-poll, an incumbent, (Respondent A), put it: ‘an annual meeting doesn’t help with establishing a quality relationship’, in which everything need not be explained and context has already been explored. Respondent C (a priest-in-charge) said about the existing processes: ‘It can feel a bit like jumping through a hoop—and personally I would probably find a more thorough, ongoing, mentoring/supervision approach much more helpful.’
Grint concurs: ‘the highest level of satisfaction with appraisal systems tends to relate to those subordinates who already have a satisfactory relationship with the appraising superordinate.’[xiii]
Without that satisfactory relationship MDR is fatally flawed. For Respondent B, a lay minister who is also a GP, MDR is akin to all forms of professional review: it ‘makes people, who are trying really hard, feel bad.’ Furthermore, ecclesiastical MDR strays into areas of family and personal life, obliging reviewees to evaluate statements like ‘I make time for developing relationships with friends for my own leisure’[xiv], and answer questions such as ‘In what ways are you able to develop/keep up hobbies/interests?’[xv]. Such questions, about work/life balance and impact on families, can be intrusive if they are felt to contribute to the judgement made by a superordinate about the subordinate minister’s competence or suitability to do the job:
…matters like ministry / family balance should be kept under review in the context of a sacramental and spiritual relationship with a spiritual director, not in a bureaucratic relationship with the diocese. (Respondent B)
This belief was reinforced by Respondent C: ‘my wish is that MDR came off the back of a relationship, preferably with one’s Father in Christ.’ The implication is that, so far, it has not.
A priest in another diocese (Respondent D), who before he was ordained worked in voluntary sector training and was a (lay) MDR reviewer for ten years, affirms the centrality of relationship, not processes, to the success of MDR:
The lack of relationship is key. With clergy I’ve seen a number of times I seldom see real progress on the issues that frustrate them most. Why would I? Nobody supports them in tackling these issues throughout the rest of the year. So they come back the following year and re-present the same problems. A summary sheet of issues raised and goals set passes across the Bishop’s desk (at best) but there is no response from him, unless it is time for their triennial interview.
There is no point in promising that the ‘Review’ part of MDR will lead to ‘Development’ when it does not: otherwise it will merely reinforce the sense that MDR is more about control than celebration, domination rather than development. Or, as one secular management academic puts it: ‘Better for employees to think the boss doesn’t care than for them to think that he betrayed them.’[xvi]
[i] Archbishops’ Council, “ACMDR 2010,” 4.5; 4.4.
[ii] Culbert, “Get Rid (WSJ).”
[iii] Culbert and Rout, Get Rid of the Performance Review, 49.
[iv] Grint goes further and, convincingly, argues for the social construction of reality, of which appraisals are merely a part: ‘as far as the assessment procedure is concerned, we are what our superordinates say we are.’ Grint, “What’s Wrong,” 65.
[v] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: leadership in the age of the quick fix, 2nd ed. (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 98.
[vi] Friedman, Failure of Nerve, 97–8.
[vii] Friedman, Failure of Nerve, 98.
[viii] Which is, for Friedman ‘a worldview’ focused on classification and categorization of individuals based on psychological diagnoses or membership of categories of ‘culture, gender, class, race, age’ and so on. He contrasts it with an emphasis on the ‘emotional processes that transcend those categories’. Friedman, Failure of Nerve, 3.
[ix] David H. Freedman, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” Atlantic Monthly, November 2010, 80.
[x] John P. A. Ioannidis, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” PLoS Med 2, no. 8 (2005): 700.
[xi] Friedman, Failure of Nerve, 99.
[xii] Culbert, “Get Rid (WSJ).”
[xiii] Grint, “What’s Wrong,” 65. See ‘Questions of power and language’ below for more on the apprehension factor involved in poor relationships.
[xiv] Bristol Diocese, “MDR: Self Assessment Questionnaire.”
[xv] Diocese of Canterbury, “Ministerial Development Review Pack: growing forward together” (Diocese of Canterbury, January 2010), 5.
[xvi] Stewart Black of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, quoted in Walter Kiechel, “When subordinates evaluate the boss,” Fortune 13 (June 19, 1989): 201-203.