Absence, Silence and Disempowerment
By Sarah Mason
When policy makers and organizational leaders talk about evaluation, many of these conversations are framed around achievement-oriented values, using language such as outcomes and impact.
One may hear phrases such as “We use evaluation data to help maximize our outcomes.” “We’re doing an evaluation to help us understand our impact,” another leader might say. Less frequently, we hear leaders frame evaluation activities from a different perspective: “We’re doing evaluation to give our stakeholders a voice.”
Yet for those who take part in evaluation activities, the opportunity to have a say can bring value of its own. Creating opportunities for stakeholders to provide feedback is a mark of respect—an indication that leaders value the perspectives of participants and are committed to improving their experience.
Having a say increases perceptions of justice and fairness (McFarlin & Sweeney, 1996), and has been shown to improve individual confidence, creativity and, at times, performance (Edmonson & Liu, 2014).
The absence of evaluation
In contrast, the absence of evaluation—usually marked by the absence of opportunities for participant feedback—conveys the message that participant perspectives and experiences are not of value.
At the individual level, the absence of feedback opportunities may lead to frustrations, perceptions of unfairness and the view that social organizations do not value those who take part in their programs and policies. These perceptions, in turn, can negatively affect an individual’s sense of self-worth, perceptions of agency and feelings of self-doubt. When individuals know they do not have a voice, they feel a greater sense of procedural unfairness than they do when there are avenues to speak up. In other words, when people have something to say, but know they’re unable to say it, they feel a sense of injustice that would not occur if they were able to speak up (Van den Bos, 1999).
Qualitative research findings on psychological safety and speaking up also suggest that silence hurts (Detert & Edmonson, 2005). That is, individuals who wish to speak up but can’t report “lingering negative affect” such as ongoing frustration and emotional pain (Detert & Edmonson, 2005, p. 5). When individuals cannot contribute their perspectives to the pursuit of a collective effort, their silence takes an emotional toll.
If this silence occurs because the system does not allow people to speak up, people believe themselves undervalued and disrespected, two factors contributing to further emotional distress (Detert & Edmonson, 2005).
This blog explores the notion of disempowerment evaluation—the structural avoidance of stakeholder feedback.
Systems that feature disempowerment evaluation approaches are characterized by three key features: (1) avoidance of stakeholder feedback, (2) obstruction of efforts by stakeholders to provide feedback and (3) messaging that dismisses or disparages those who might try to provide feedback.
The combined effect of these three features is a culture of silence in which program participants and stakeholders are, at best, unable to share their perspectives on the program and, at worst, rebuked for attempting to do so.
Both eventualities lead to detrimental effects for the individuals who take part, and to the broader system.
To read more about disempowerment evaluation and the three structural features that define it, read my recent article in Counseling Outcome Research and Evaluation.