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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Frost Davis

Program Evaluation & the Feedback Fallacy

Updated: May 26, 2023

Most library staff have no formal training in programming or event planning. Instead, plucky programmers cobble their working knowledge through research, trial & error, and mentorship.

How can managers cultivate their staff to grow as effective programmers? Contrary to what I once believed, program evaluation isn’t the answer. Indeed, evaluation by an outsider (especially an authority figure) may do more harm than good.

Have you read Harvard Business Review’s The Feedback Fallacy? Please do, when you have the time. In the meanwhile, here’s the provided summary (bolds are mine):

For years managers have been encouraged to candidly praise and criticize just about everything workers do. But it turns out that feedback does not help employees thrive. First, research shows that people can’t reliably rate the performance of others: More than 50% of your rating of someone reflects your characteristics, not hers. Second, neuroscience reveals that criticism provokes the brain’s “fight or flight” response and inhibits learning. Last, excellence looks different for each individual, so it can’t be defined in advance and transferred from one person to another. It’s also not the opposite of failure. Managers will never produce great performance by identifying what they think is failure and telling people how to correct it...

Instead, when managers see a great outcome, they should turn to the person who created it, say, “Yes! That!” and share their impression of why it was a success. Neuroscience shows that we grow most when people focus on our strengths. Learning rests on our grasp of what we’re doing well, not what we’re doing poorly, and certainly not on someone else’s sense of what we’re doing poorly.”

So, what does this look like in our everyday working & programming lives? What can managers/supervisors do to support programmers and help them grow?

Show support & interest

  • Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a manager who didn’t really understand your job but had to evaluate you anyway. What if you are that manager? The good news is there is a simple solution: Pay attention.

  • Attend programs, especially ones outside your personal “comfort zone.” Lend a helping hand before, during, and after by offering to serve as your staff member’s “assistant.” Ask questions using neutral language to understand their planning process (“Tell me about…” “How did you decide to…?”, “Walk me through…”)

Facilitate self-reflection by…

  • Making time for it. Help your staff members find (quiet, off-the-desk) time soon after a program to reflect. Ask them to share what they've noticed, if they're comfortable.

  • Modeling it yourself. Do you ever let your staff members see your mistakes and growth? Do you share stories about your successes and failures?

  • Sharing tools to spur self-reflection (stay tuned! I’ll have a printable template for you soon).

Encourage staff with the concept of “locus of control”

  • Educators often work to empower students’ social-emotional learning by discussing their locus of control (for example: one example here).

  • Through this lens, programmers can discover actionable steps regarding what they can control to improve programming while receiving “permission” to let go of what they cannot.

  • Here’s one example that will be a familiar scenario for youth services staff: Despite our best efforts to name or specify the age appropriateness of programs (“Teen Craft Club” or “Preschool Storytime”) we can’t really control who shows up the day of a program and we may end up with ages wildly outside our expectations. What IS within our control? How we react and receive our patrons outside the age range and how we’re able to “scaffold” by amending activities to include age “outliers.”

  • Simply thinking through the locus of control in this scenario and others can leave staff more prepared, calm, and empowered.

Lastly, shout successes from the rooftop!

  • Praise in Public: I have a toddler at home and recently read Harvey Karp's Happiest Toddler on the Block. While not all the advice was applicable, one bit stands out. Dr. Karp recommends praising your toddler's positive behavior by bragging on him to another adult while he's in earshot. He believes this is a far more effective than sharing your praise directly with your toddler. We really haven't evolved much from our toddler years, have we? Everyone loves to hear their efforts praised to others. How can you share the good news with other stakeholders? A cool Canva infographic? An online album of photos? Quotes from attendees?

  • Frame successes using the locus of control to emphasize the actionable and pithy, specific language. Okay: "Andrea's program was awesome! So many people came! Everyone had fun!" Better:"Andrea was incredibly well-prepared for her program, even when she had more attendees than expected. Her Instagram posts promoting the program really engaged the many millennials who attended! She also found time to greet each patron, which made people smile and engage."

Programmers: how have your managers/supervisors helped you grow? Managers: what seems to help your programmers grow the most?

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