What is performance management?

I think that it’s fair to say that if you hear `performance management’ in an academic context, then it is referring to a negative situation. People tend to be ‘performance managed’ when their behaviour or ability to perform a role is under question.

The connotation is that staff from the Human Resource (HR) department will be involved, and that some formal processes will be underway. So, performance management can be perceived as something that is done to staff when they are not measuring up to a standard.

Perhaps though, performance management should not be exclusive to dealing with situations of poor performance. It should reflect the approaches employed to manage performance at all levels, both good and not-so-good. 

Reflection: How does this compare with your previous experience of performance management?

Of course, some would argue that the role of a university is far too complex to boil down into a few quantitative measures, and any attempt to specify measures to be managed, will result in added tension when the monitoring systems are implemented.

For instance, the breadth of activities that a university undertakes will inevitably lead to compromises being made. Maximising excellence in research has to be made at the expense of other activities.

Such activities can differ between HEIs; the ability to maintain good student satisfaction scores, or the amount of industrial (‘third-stream’) income are likely suffer if the academic staff focus wholly upon high-quality journal articles.

Conversely, an enterprising university may find that its entrepreneurial income generation may be constraining an ability to create new knowledge and solicit research council funding.

And of course, a focus upon income generation through student tuition fees may create a culture that finds it difficult to relate to the wider benefits of engaging in research and scholarly activity.

In all cases there are tensions that require sensitive management. We should remember though, that what might be a complex situation for a group of staff (such as a department), might actually be distilled down to something that is much more polarised for an individual member of staff. For instance, a department may strategically plan to change its income profile to increase the proportion of funded research.

Whilst for a research active academic this could reinforce or amplify the tension between teaching and research duties, for a teaching oriented academic there may be no foreseeable change in their immediate future.

Reflection: Think back to your last appraisal meeting with your line manager. What aspects of that discussion, in relation to your performance, were, or could be, counter-productive for you?

Our understanding of performance management is shaped by our experiences of being managed in an academic context. It is not uncommon for first time academic line managers to be exasperated by annual appraisal discussions with academic staff.

Some staff will enthusiastically discuss quantifiable targets for the year ahead, and offer an insightful commentary on their performance for the previous year.

Others will appear noncommittal and defensive; they’ll describe their contribution as strong but argue that their work is necessarily complex and unable to be measured.

Another academic may provide an outright objection to the whole process and provide the basis of ‘a difficult conversation’, and in some cases cite the measurement of performance as a contributor to poor personal well-being.

The mixture of these discussions will vary depending upon the prevalent culture of the institution, but also the local culture within departments and teams. It is useful to consider how this culture might be fostered by the predominant approach to management in your environment.

Directive or self-directed management?

A directive approach to management typically exhibits the following characteristics:

• Performance measures and goals and determined at all levels of the institution, and formulated by the senior leadership team;

• Managers monitor the performance of individuals against local targets;

• Your line manager makes it clear what has to be done, how it should be done and by when;

• Performance is assessed in terms of how well the work was done;

• Frequent use of initiatives/project working to achieve short term goals.

In terms of the daily conversations, a directive manager would have a tendency to instruct:

• “That’s the second year running that the assessment and feedback scores have been less than 60%. You need to investigate and report back with an action plan by next Tuesday.”

• “Those application conversion figures don’t add up. Marketing don’t seem to be able to talk to Central Planning.”

• “The Quality Lead won’t like this. Get support from Central Intelligence and Estates first, before you present a paper at the Committee meeting.”

This style is motivated by outcomes and can be frequently encountered in academic support/administrative areas. It also occurs in academic areas to varying degrees.

In contrast there is management that encourages staff to be self directed. 

This can be characterised as:

• The mission of the organisation is identified, with the declaration of long-term ambitions;

• A series of stakeholder consultations are held to determine the strategic priorities;

• Action plans are created that may include qualitative and vague outcomes;

• Managers utilise measures to initiate discussions around enhancement;

• Managers use the mission to reinforce what has to be achieved, and refer to assessments of values and behaviours as measures of progress;

• Significant emphasis is placed upon the staff recruitment processes, to ensure that incoming staff are of an appropriate ‘fit’.

The daily dialogue also reflects the increased focus upon the individual, rather than on a system or process:

• “I’ve seen the assessment and feedback scores as well. What do you think is the cause?”

• “The application figures seem to regularly have errors in them. What are the reasons for this happening?”

• “I think we can see where this is heading. How would you tackle it?”

A self-directed style of management encourages a greater alignment between the intrinsic motivation of an individual and the organisation, with less reliance upon the control and reporting of performance against short term objectives. Traditionally, this has typified the stereotypical academic environment, whereby academic staff are trusted to work to support the institution’s mission, rather than to perform in a coordinated way to achieve an end of year operating surplus.

Managers that require specific objectives to be met in a short timeframe can find this situation particularly frustrating. However, the emerging competitive marketplace in HE has started to focus the minds of university executive leaders in such a way that HEIs are starting to adopt more directive styles of management. In the same way that managers can be frustrated with a department of self-directed academic staff, academics can also find directives and ‘managerialism’ problematic.

Like most things in life it is a question of balance; where the balance lies is likely to be different for each institution. But the increased pressure to perform well both financially and in the published league tables, combined with the potentially destructive situation of failing to get the best out of academic staff, means that there is much to gain or lose depending upon the approaches we adopt as leaders.

It’s important that we make sufficient effort to understand our environment so that we can devise the best approach. You might think that a book that advocates the use of data to achieve transformation might be heading down the road of directive management. But data is not always quantifiable in the sense of ratios or absolute numbers, and qualitative data is often a rich source of insight for the curious.

If we are to be successful at managing performance, we have to appreciate what is worth measuring, what will motivate individuals, and how they respond to the local culture.

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