A mismanaged performance? 1

April 20, 2007

Performance-management systems stifle flexibility, destroy goodwill and sap the commitment of employees. At least, that's the message that comes through in Frank Furedi's discussion of performance management (Working Knowledge, April 13). Of course, there's little to defend in systems that are implemented badly. But good ones can be more positive. A large body of research shows the value of performance management for both individuals and organisations.

Identifying excellence should be important for any performance management system. It should help everyone to understand what constitutes outstanding performance in teaching, research, administration, collaboration, tutoring, community-building or whatever activity is intrinsically important within the university. Otherwise the system will reduce to a method for identifying failures or maintaining a bureaucratic status quo. The failing of many systems in this respect probably underlies the feelings of cynicism reported so frequently.

Recognising the full range of contributions by academics is important. Filling in lectures for others or reading a grant application are typical of supportive, yet unpredictable, activities. Unfortunately, many performance-management systems try to formalise and categorise the nature of such spontaneous activities.

Not surprisingly, these attempts are perceived as contrived and formulaic hoops through which to jump. However, consequences are even more negative if these positive contributions are not recognised at all. Good performance-management systems identify the importance of informal contributions, their diversity and the impracticality of formalising the content of all contributions.

The good performance-management system paints a pathway from individual work activities to the success of the organisation as a whole. When this part of the system is not working it is easy to perceive it as uncaring and malevolent.

Good performance management identifies excellent achievement, includes broad notions of achievement and clarifies why achievements really matter. It is in everyone's interest to do this well.

I don't believe we will build better universities by rejecting or avoiding the challenges posed by good performance-management systems. Better done, these systems can support energetic environments with fulfilling work activities and career opportunities. However, it depends a lot on flexibility, goodwill and commitment.

Mark A. Griffin
Professor of work psychology
Sheffield University

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