Why performance management doesn't manage to perform.

Is there anyone out there whose heart does not sink at the thought of setting performance management objectives?Is there anyone who does not stare at the blank document and die a thousand silent deaths? Is there anyone out there who thinks that the performance management process helps them to teach their children better and make them cleverer? Is there anyone out there who knows how to make the system work…and that doesn’t mean making it as painless as possible?


This leaves us with two burning questions: why do we do it and why doesn’t it work?

We do it because they do it in business and also there is something rather intuitive about being expected to justify the fact that one is being paid. Oh, and ‘Holding others to account’ appears a lot in NPQ courses.

Performance management derives from the management paradigm of Management By Objective devised by Drucker (1954) and adopted across American industry from the 60s and was credited with the flourishing performance of many a tech giant.

There are 5 steps: Review organisational goals; set worker objectives; monitor progress; evaluate; reward. Recognise that? Yup, it’s the performance management cycle. The rationale is that employees have a clear understanding of how their responsibilities and roles relate to the organisation’s goals and managers have a clear accountability trail. Remember SMART targets? They’re from Management By Objective. By including the worker in the setting of targets, MBO was arguably motivating and empowering and ensured the worker’s targets aligned with those of the organisation. The system’s success is predicated on quantifiable goals being set and effective information systems being established to ensure the data relating to objectives is valid and reliable. Rewards are a result of objective achievement. MBO is established on the aphorism: ‘what gets measured gets done.’ Simples. Yes?

Well, no actually. Even in business, with data always quantifiable in terms of monetary value it is not always easy to set a quantifiable objective. How do you set an objective for the marketing team when the objective may be influenced by a number of independent variables? The advertising campaign may be excellent but if the product is poor, sales will be poor. Now extrapolate that complexity to outcomes in a classroom and then try setting a quantifiable objective and whereas performance in a test may be measured, the measurement of learning is a far more slippery fish.

But if businesses do MBO then…

Well actually they don’t.

It is bemusing that MBO maintains any traction, especially in education after W. Edwards Deming’s (1984) intellectual and practical demolition of its efficacy. Deming’s major complaint was that MBO encouraged staff to meet targets by whatever means necessary inevitably propagating poor quality. Ring any bells in your school?

He also had considerable doubts as to the ability of many leaders to sufficiently understand the corporate planning resulting in a misapplication of objectives encouraging an emphasis on goals over strategy and a chronic ignoring of contextual and environmental issues.

Obstacles to success for organisations according to Deming include: neglecting long-term planning; relying on technology to solve problems; seeking examples to follow rather than developing solutions; making excuses that imply one’s problems are different to everyone else’s and therefore insoluble; having the mistaken belief that leadership can be taught; relying on quality assurance inspections to improve quality; blaming the workforce. Good grief! There is more educational wisdom and advice in those short lines than in 18 months of NPQH.

He went on to write, “A manager of people needs to understand that all people are different. This is not ranking people. A manager needs to understand that the performance of anyone is governed largely by the system in which they work.”

And the cornerstone of Deming’s Key Principles (1994) of management was the inter alia removal and abolition of Management By Objective and annual merit ratings.

So, there is an alternative to performance management: just don’t do it. Almost anything else (including nothing) is preferable.

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