Performance reviews: time to rethink | Education Support Partnership

Performance reviews: time to rethink

The traditional performance review is now seen as outdated and ineffective by many including the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Kristian Still implores school leaders to think again about their performance management conversations that could unwittingly being doing more harm than good. 

Cards on the table. I am highly critical of triennial performance reviews that casts dark skies over many schools up and down the country. I have been banging my very little drum, as loudly as I possibly can, telling anyone who will listen. At last I have a listening ear. With the support of the Education Support Partnership I was able to convene a conversation with the National Education Union and start a louder conversation around the topic. Ed Support have expressed their concern about the impact of current performance review systems on the mental health and wellbeing of education staff and is therefore working with a range of individuals and stakeholders to understand its link to increased stress and anxiety levels. 

I know I am not the only professional questioning the apparently unchallenged practice of performance review and Performance Related Pay. You do feel infinitely better when someone you respect and look up to, commits a similar viewpoint:


Then recently, we had NAHT Accountability Commission’s new report. Even if we agree that accountability systems are designed to ensure schools perform, then we have heard a damning conclusion.

"The approaches used by the government to hold schools to account are acting as a brake to overall improvement and are, on balance, doing more harm than good."
NAHT Accountability Commission (2018) 

Under that accountability umbrella, like a small child sulking at the back of room, sits performance reviews.

Schools leaders, I am so sorry, I know you have been working tirelessly to reset a culture of high aspiration and community in school, welcoming new students and reassuring anxious parents. I [more than] half expect you have been burning the midnight oil, searching for nuggets of excellence to congratulate and amplify, prioritising those areas of the school, and those staff, that need your support most, drafting examination reports to governors and trusts. You most probably took on the responsibility of handling the unexpected and unforeseen, so that the senior staff can focus on what matters most. I am so sorry, but I must implore you to think again about those performance management conversations that could undo all that investment, that can so easily do more harm than good. Despite our best intentions.

Starting with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) report Could do better (2016) Assessing what works in performance management and conversations with Rob Briner (Professor of Organizational Psychology in the School of Business and Management) and Matt O’Leary (Professor of Education at Birmingham City University) let me give you a reason to pause, reflect and respond. Again, I am so sorry, I know it will add to your immediate workload.

"Understanding requires mastery of four ways of looking at things – as they were, as they are, as they might become, and as they ought to be."
Birth of the Chaordic Age

How important is it for leaders, in any organisation, to be able to master this skill? Arguably, these four questions present a unifying framework for self-evaluation, appraisal and visioning. With the “ought to be” not proscribed or mandated but best achieved by acting as if “it were already true.”

CIPD – could do better

"Common practice in performance management has remained broadly stable for two or three decades, but the last few years has seen a proliferation of popular articles challenging the received wisdom and a number of high profile businesses looking for different ways to engage, recognise, evaluate and develop their staff. The broad thrust is that traditional practices – in particular the dreaded annual appraisal – are outdated, if indeed they ever worked."
Could do better, CIPD (2016)

Let’s be very clear here. ‘Could do better.’ is a broad overview of performance management and we need to be mindful that education (as with any defined industry) will respond to performance management uniquely. Given the social importance of education, there is significant research to draw upon from the education itself and comparisons within the public sector.

Performance management is hardly convincing

Senior leaders from outside HR were even more critical, 73% considering annual appraisals ineffective and nearly half 46% considering six monthly appraisals ineffective. Contrast that to that of their views on coaching or mentoring, which 92% of HR leaders and 79% of non-HR leaders saw as effective.

Criticisms of performance reviews: overly time consuming and energy sapping, disappointing and ultimately demotivating, divisive and not conducive to co-operation, not effective drivers of performance.

Goal setting

The report highlights the fragility of goal setting (the process by which aims/objectives/targets are often set.)

Goal setting is rather like prescriptive medication, in that it certainly works, but can be easy to misapply or get the wrong ‘dosage’. Generally a powerful motivator, they can detract from what needs to be focused on in ‘complex task’ that involve navigating interrelated steps and stages.

Contextual factors such as job type should always be taken into account.

I am confident, few in teaching, would contest that teaching is ‘complex,’ and that regrettably, context is all too often not accounted for, as Dylan Wiliam alluded to so critically here.


 
Sticking with goal setting or whichever term applied (aims/objectives/targets), as intrinsically linked to appraisal, rests on monitoring progress and feedback. That being able to see the distance from the goal is crucial.

"This confirms that performance management should be seen as a continuous chain of connected activities, not as a discrete process that is occasionally revisited."
Could do better, CIPD (2016)

And yet, as far as I can investigate, the process typically employs a triennial model. Why three meetings? Even if the closing and opening meetings are too often a befuddled mess.

Even then, systematically assessing employee performance requires managers to apply standardised measures or ratings. Unfortunately, there are a number of potential sources of bias in this, especially from the raters or managers themselves, and many of these may not be conscious.

Gender bias, managers that have been rated highly themselves, leads to their higher ratings, employees hired or recommended by the manager who is rating their performance, leads to higher ratings, introverted managers tend to underrate extroverted and/or disagreeable employees. Need we go on. 

Feedback

Feedback generally contributes to performance, but there is a great deal of variation: in many cases it has no effect or even worsens performance.

Performance Related Pay

The CIPD report clearly states:

"…a more fundamental question relates to the purpose of appraisal. Managers go about assessments in cognitively different ways, with different results, when they are used for administrative purposes (such as to inform pay decisions) than when they are used for developmental purposes. Therefore, we recommend that any single process or meeting focuses on one or the other of these, but not both. Introducing some clear water between assessments that inform pay and promotions and those that help employees improve should make performance management a far smoother, more productive and less fraught process."
Could do better, CIPD (2016)

As yet, I have not seen this important advice applied to performance review in education. Rather professional development and the administration of a pay award, is very much encouraged. Think again.

I also learnt that in an administrative context (e.g. pay and promotions for example) raters tend to highlight poor performance.

In a developmental context – raters tended to look at all aspects of employees’ work and performance, using positive and negative examples to reach their conclusions.

Could it get any more confusing for the reviewee?

Left field

Here is one idea I had not thought about. One course of action the CIPD would recommend to employers get to ‘appraise the appraisal’. It is not the processes per se that are important, so much as employees’ reactions to them, and these are particularly influenced by how fair and useful they experience performance appraisal to be. Have you ever asked your staff about their views of the school performance review process? I plan to.

Conclusion

Think again. I will leave you with this thought…

"Despite broad support for the principle of linking pay to performance, only a small percentage of employees thought their existing performance pay schemes provided them with an incentive to work beyond job requirements or to take more initiative."
The role of performance-related pay in renegotiating the “effort bargain”: the case of the British public service, Marsden (2004)

Kristian Still is a headteacher at an all-through school in Surrey. He also writes a blog on educational leadership: www.kristianstill.co.uk

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