John Mark Revisited: Subjectivity in Personnel Assessment

It was the best of decisions. It was the worst of decisions.

In my last blog, I questioned whether John Mark should be considered a false positive or false negative. Paul and Barnabas disagreed sharply on his fitness to rejoin them in ministry, leading the companions to go their separate ways. Paul had a successful missionary journey without John Mark, while Barnabas took John Mark as an assistant on his trip. We later learn in the scriptures that eventually John Mark not only became an invaluable co-laborer with Paul, he also wrote the Gospel of Mark. Apparently, Barnabas successfully developed John Mark.

Another important issue was at play in the standoff: the inevitable subjectivity inherent in personnel assessment. Let us first review the facts and then discuss the issue. Paul and Barnabas were eye witnesses to John Mark’s behavior. Because of their first-hand vantage point, Paul and Barnabas could be objective concerning their observations. There was no disagreement, inaccuracy, misrepresentation, or inconsistency in what they observed: John Mark’s desertion of the missionary team on its earlier journey.

The first stage of personnel assessment is gathering of behavioral data. Ideally, this stage should be completely objective. Assessors should not be influenced by personal feelings, preferences, or prejudice, only the relevant facts. However, assessors usually have to gather data through indirect methods such as interviewing. Unlike Paul and Barnabas, they most often are not in a position to directly observe the work-related behaviors of candidates for ministry. Therefore, assessors’ indirect observations may or may not be objective, depending on their skills in interviewing and assessment. The operative word is skills.

Unskilled assessors either mix objectivity with subjectivity in their interviewing, or their approach is primarily subjective. For instance, they may fail to gather an adequate amount of data to establish a reliable pattern of work-related behavior. This mixing of objectivity and subjectivity forces them to guestimate the pattern based on their limited sample of behavior. Or they might gather data about behavior that is tangential or irrelevant. This complete subjectivity forces them to arbitrarily include data that has no demonstrated relationship to successful job or ministry performance.

Furthermore, even in the direct observation of behavior such through simulation exercises in assessment centers, other factors introducing subjectivity may weigh in on the process. In the actual biblical account, Paul and Barnabas may have disagreed on the relevance of some unrecorded behaviors. Perhaps there was clear and compelling evidence that John Mark had changed. Perhaps, based on the context, he had justification for his earlier behavior. Perhaps John Mark had other spiritual gifts, compensating for his one major flaw and elevating his credibility as a missionary. We do not know. However, we know that (a) John Mark’s behavior did not occur in a vacuum and (b) Paul and Barnabas resorted to subjectivity: their personal feelings, opinions, and perspectives as to what other factors did or did not merit consideration and the extent to which to consider them. On this point, a completely objective process would have ruled out their disagreement, as the decision would have been entirely independent of their individual thoughts and perspectives.

The second stage of personnel assessment is evaluation, which entails the interpreting of behavioral data. Interpretation gives meaning to the data. For instance, suppose Paul and Barnabas only considered John Mark’s desertion. Paul may have interpreted the behavior as irresponsibility, immaturity, and spiritual weakness. Barnabas, on the other hand, may have interpreted the behavior as a lapse in John Mark’s growth trajectory, and while serious, not indicative of an established pattern of behavior. We can see that the interpretation of behavior is of paramount importance in swaying personnel decisions in one direction or another. In fact, the real value of an assessment lies in providing a sound interpretation rather than a reporting of raw data. With this thought in mind, we do not know the basis for Paul and Barnabas’ obviously separate interpretations, only that they arrived at different conclusions. It is of interest that Godly leaders can interpret the same behavior differently.

Here are some take home points:

1. Subjetivity almost always exists in personnel assessment. Let us not spiritualize the process to the extent that we are dishonest in claiming our complete objectivity.

2. Subjectivity in personnel assessment does not automatically mean that the process has to be flawed. Assessors can advantageously manage subjectivity to enhance the process.

3. The more objectivity found in the first stage of selection, the less subjectivity found in the process. Conversely, as the second stage builds on the first stage, subjectivity exponentially increases with subjectivity in the first stage.

4. Having a framework for interpreting behavioral data is just as important as knowing what behavioral data to gather.

5. Managing subjectivity requires a skill set. And assessors can be trained to become skillful in managing their subjectivity.

We will explore the management of assessor subjectivity in future posts. Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.