The Death of Performance Management?

“Well that was a ***ing waste of time, as always. Why do we go through this stupid charade every year,” muttered my colleague as he slumped across his desk. He had just returned from his annual performance management meeting with ‘the boss’. That was in a private bank in the UK, circa 1986.

Whiz forward 25 years – it’s 2011 and I’m in New Delhi, India remembering that conversation as I sat through the umpteenth meeting where the leadership team of a very highly regarded group of schools wrestled with the question – could we introduce a performance management system that would be fair, viewed positively and make a positive contribution to standards of education delivery? These meetings and all the preparatory work for them went on for well over a year. We were not willing or prepared to do anything that had even the slightest risk of spoiling what was already good or great in the organisation. The result was we felt so much more comfortable staying on the fence rather than plunging in to something we could regret.

I sometimes compare performance management systems with formative assessment for pupils in schools – motivational for the few high achievers, demotivational for everyone else. We need to take a step back and think about why we’re doing it. It seems the starting premises is – people will only work hard if we drive them with sticks and carrots. If they’re not controlled, they won’t give good work. Today, this is not seen as the right approach to motivation for students, so why should we settle for this when it comes to how we lead our adult employees who are pivotal in the quality of what we deliver.

The problems with PM are many. For example, it’s a rare manager who, when citing evidence to an employee can quote examples that are more than a few weeks old – even when it’s supposed to be a review of their performance and contribution over a year. It’s not even just the case that those having their performance appraised get uncomfortable – I’ve also known so many managers who found it a very uncomfortable experience to go through.

If we want processes that motivate, inspire and guide people to give their best contributions to their work, to understand how best to contribute and what’s expected of them, then they have to be based on far more timely communication. We also need to have very firmly in our minds when looking at the systems we apply in schools that education establishments are not the same as other employment environments. By way of example, I think it was quite reasonable that a group of teachers once challenged me as to why schools have systems that focus on individual performance, at the same time as emphasizing the importance of teachers working together effectively in teams. There are arguments both ways on this, but we do need to be having such debates in an open and transparent manner.

In our schools today, we say that we want exceptional high calibre teachers to excel. However, by and large, we have tended to adopt populist approaches whereby the differential between how we reward the highest achievers and the rest are very marginal. Another debate we need to be having is whether we are prepared to have remuneration systems that significantly differentiate between high achievers and others. The reality right now is that when the remuneration is linked to the performance management system in our schools we’re spending a very large amount of time, work and effort in to making tiny differentiations between people. If what we want is a system that motivates and inspires stars, encourages others to significantly raise their performance levels and keep our best people – do we need to have more courage? Or, would our leaders be uncomfortable about whether staff would trust their judgements when identifying the top achievers? I often sense a steak of ‘socialist fervour’ running through educators. So, whilst they might know in their hearts that in the school there is a small handful of people whose contributions are massively bigger than the average, even the top achievers/ contributors favour an approach under which all are paid close to the mean. Standing out isn’t applauded.

The result is that we finish up with performance management systems where we seek to tease apart the 1 or 2% of difference in performance from the mean of the vast majority of employees. It’s almost certainly doomed to failure as most of those people want to be told that they’re amongst the 1 to 2% who are above the line, not the ones below. Further, the vast majority of the leaders are those who want to do the easier job of telling all their direct reports that they’re among that above average group (and, to be fair, haven;t really been trained or incentivized to do the harder task of frank, open and honest feedback).

here is a fascinating and detailed exploration of these key issues by McKinseys;

McKinsey – Ahead of the Curve – The Future of Performance Management

After you have read the McKinsey article you’re left with a full understanding of just how complex this issue is throughout business and how much remains to be done to find solutions that actually provide a positive contribution, let alone eliminate all the negative implications. When we move to the environment of schools and educators, i believe the issues are even more complex. For example, we’ve seen increasing trends in US and UK for part of remuneration of teachers to be lionked to student exam performance or ‘value added.’ However, these trends sit very uncomfortably with a lot of good, passionate and dedicated educators who even see them as inherently immoral – motivating short-termism, teaching to the tests and acts which are not in the best long term interests of the learners. Not only has this demotivated a lot of educators – it’s even driven some out of the profession. maybe worse, however hard you go and look, you’re hard pressed to find any positive improvements that the practice has brought.

Business people want to believe in a world where, if you can find a measure for something, you can get more of it, make systems more perfect and thereby raise standards (reducing or even striving to eliminate human imperfection). This is a hangover from industrial Taylorism and is a flat denial of the fact that, even in business, success and achievement are not all systematised and beautifully planned out in advance. Achievement is messy and inexact. it needs to flow from a combination of forward planning and intention with the ability to react and respond effectively and with skill and finesse to changes in circumstances.

As I write, i don’t believe I have the answers. Nor do i believe we will get to better answers without being prepared to challenge orthodoxy, challenge and question our own beliefs and test ourselves. What I am sure is that the best work will come from schools and workplaces where trust is in large supply, where integrity, honesty and a shared desire to fulfil vision and mission are the clues that each and every employee uses daily to determine where best to apply their efforts, their skills and their passion.

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2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Jeyashree's Blog and commented:
    Thank you Mr. Parkinson for this lovely article.

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