Harnessing neuroscience to unlock the transformative potential of evaluation - IOE
Rome, 22 March 2023 – There is scope for applying the principles of social neuroscience investigations to the field of evaluation. Evidence suggests that doing so would likely enhance the transformative potential of evaluation by strengthening evaluators’ resilience, and helping them to find the mechanisms that make policies, programmes and interventions work. Having recognized this untapped resource, the Independent Office of Evaluation of IFAD (IOE) has started to apply methods that draw from the field of brain science, and is now working alongside world-renowned keynote speaker, lecturer, author, CEO of Neurobusiness Group, and Harvard trained psychiatrist, Dr Srini Pillay [here]. To discuss the implications and potential ramifications of this cutting-edge approach, Dr Pillay joined Dr Indran A. Naidoo [here], IOE Director, for an insightful discussion during the thirteenth instalment of the IFAD Innovation Talks series, on 22 March 2023.
“Having a deeper understanding of what is going on in the brain can help us understand both the evaluator and the evaluand. As an evaluator, what you really want is change. Change in a positive direction. If you can understand what is going on in the brain of the evaluand, you have a greater likelihood of improving that change. By following certain principles, and by understanding the principles of brain science, we can most likely improve outcomes. That said, there is not a one size fits all, and we need to apply research findings as individuals”, stated Dr Pillay.
Organized at IFAD’s headquarters in Rome, and live streamed globally through the Fund’s corporate broadcast channels, the hybrid event saw the participation of over 160 attendants, including delegates and high-level representatives of the Executive Board, as well as a host of development partners, counterparts, stakeholders, and IFAD senior management and staff. Renata Mirulla [here], Facilitator of the EvalForward community of practice, moderated the session.
“Whilst the field of evaluation produces high quality information on what works and what does not, it’s full potential is not realized. It tends to get locked into the discussion on methodology and on whether the results are true or not. There should be less attention given to evaluation results, and more given to the challenges being found and how these can be addressed. The focus needs to move beyond the report, look at the process and understand what are the implications of the findings in order to better serve the people out there. Applying social neuroscience principles will help us get there”, affirmed Dr Naidoo.
In the context of the United Nations, the Secretary-General recently urged all agencies, programmes and funds to explore and apply behavioural science in programmatic and administrative areas.
“Behavioural science is a critical tool for the UN to progress on its mandate. It can contribute to combating poverty, improving public health and safety, promoting gender equality, strengthening peacebuilding and all the SDGs”, stated António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, in an official guidance note.
In a similar vein, Dr Naidoo and Dr Srini Pillay believe that the time has come to apply neuroscience principles to the field of evaluation – with a view to transform the discipline and yield unprecedented results. Moreover, these principles are already being used to great effect in the fields of crime, justice, security, child development, education, mediation, health, and social well-being and social cohesion.
“Within organizations, 70% of change initiatives fail. Part of the reason for this is that when there is any kind of change, it activates the conflict centre of the brain. What we know is that organizations that develop initiatives to change mindsets, as IFAD is doing right now, are two times more likely to be effective. In addition, if you are aligned in your aspirations, you are 4.4 more times likely to be effective”, highlighted Dr Pillay.
By their very nature, evaluations are meant to shine a light on the strengths and challenges that people face. While the goal may be to inspire change behaviour in the people who receive those evaluations, several bodies of research from the biological sciences indicate that the approach taken is often misfocused. Emphasizing weaknesses, flaws, or other shortcomings, or even trying to "fix" the problem has an opposite effect. Moreover, this approach will likely activate the Negative Emotional Attractor, which causes people to defend themselves and, as a result, to close down. Not exactly the desired outcome.
“Words conjure emotions, and the word ‘evaluation’ conjures judgement. This calls for a mindset where evaluators must listen with empathy, and where management recognizes that they are working at the service of the organization. It is quite normal, in a complex development context, to have areas that need improvement. If we accept this, then we should become more reflective and call for critical feedback, rather than push it back”, explained Dr Naidoo.
During the Talk, Dr Pillay also explained that people are more likely to reach a destination and appreciate the steps along the way if they are not just told what to do. Being told what to do creates weaker cognitive maps in the brain because there is no figuring out process that contributes to the plan. Furthermore, many studies have also demonstrated that strengths-based performance appraisal motivates people to change and align with goals much more than one that looks at strengths and weaknesses or weaknesses alone. While this does not mean that evaluators should just emphasize strengths, it does suggest that the feedback should highlight the capacity to grow that strength.
“We all have mirror neurons in our brain, so if you have an emotion of anger it will automatically mirror in the other person’s brain – even if you are not showing it. Therefore, they will then go into defensive mode and will not be able to hear you. This is why the notion of coming to a meeting with a positive intention is very important, because you want that constructive emotion to mirror in the other person’s brain”, underscored Dr Pillay.
IOE has already begun a process of using the principles of neuroscience. Examples are the new Evaluation Manual [here], which was co-created and jointly signed by IOE and management – a first in the history of the organization. IFAD also has a new Evaluation Policy [here], which reflects both independent and self-evaluation, as well as a host of dynamic communication products [here]. These products demonstrate how it is possible to enhance engagement in a constructive fashion, without undermining the principle of independence.
“We are striving to engage in a more dynamic way throughout the evaluation process. We aim to co-create findings that help the organization to improve effectiveness. We are moving away from the ‘them and us’ construct, since there is space and capacity to have a more creative and constructive dialogue”, underscored Dr Naidoo.
These efforts have been supported by IOE’s unprecedented approach to strategic communications, which has radically evolved during the past two years, revolutionizing the Office’s capacity for dynamic user engagement. Today, the articulate communication offerings present users with an immersive experience, spanning the full spectrum of the evaluation function. Intuitive and easy to navigate, the communication product mix fosters greater user engagement by speaking to the core of what IOE’s audience looks for, bolstering direct and flexible avenues for interaction, and inviting exciting opportunities for people to create a personal connection with the Office in a dynamic fashion. Opportunities for real, tangible change have emerged, as the products are facilitating greater impact of IOE’s work.
The significance of similar undertakings notwithstanding, these results are the proverbial tip of the iceberg as IOE plans to bolster the synergetic use of neuroscience-based principles in its evaluative offerings during the course of 2023. For the first time, the Evaluation Manual will have a section on communication and engagement, which will allow to design evaluation modules that help evaluators to engage in a way that brings about the level of dialogue that IOE is seeking. The section will be followed by a virtual on-line training course focused on ensuring impactful evaluative communication, and a subsequent training workshop.
“These efforts will help us to de-personalize evaluation results, whilst engaging in a more dynamic way throughout the evaluation process, which is as important as the report. The learning actually happens during the reflective process, over several months. Learning is not something that I can take responsibility for. Learning is the responsibility of those who are engaging”, pinpointed Dr Naidoo.
The IFAD Innovation Talks are a series of learning and knowledge sharing sessions, lasting one hour. They feature innovative approaches, tools, products and services developed by IFAD, its partners and the members of the IFAD Innovation Network in order to further the aims of the network. The Talks follow various formats: from interviews and panel discussions, to TEDx talks and demonstrations of new technological tools.
For further information, please contact Alexander Voccia [here]
- Live recording of the Innovation Talk [here]
- Event takeaways [here]
- Speaker bios [here]
- Mindset Strategies for Post-Evaluation Transformation [seminar - video]
- Mindset Strategies for Post-Evaluation Transformation [seminar - summary fact sheet]
- Performance appraisal and feedback myths debunked. Independent Magazine, issue 4 [here]
- Independent Office of Evaluation of IFAD (IOE) [here]
- IFAD Innovation Network [here]
- Secretary-General's Guidance Note on Behavioural Science [here]