'Performance management is a waste of time,' claims HR professor

Programme of investment in HR has not improved sector's effectiveness. Melanie Newman reports

June 19, 2008

Attempts by managers to formally manage academics' performance are a waste of time, a personnel expert will tell a conference of university administrators next week.

Michael Sheehan, professor of human resource management at the University of Glamorgan, is due to advise the Association of Heads of University Administration conference on how to avoid the "grievance culture" at a conference on human resources issues on June.

Speaking to Times Higher Education in advance of the meeting, Professor Sheehan, himself a former HR manager, said the idea that individuals need to be motivated by managers was "nonsense".

Rather than viewing their staff as people who needed to be constantly chivvied along, leaders should focus on employees' "unlimited potential" and how best to develop it, he said.

Transparency, optimism and displays of confidence in staff are the key to "authentic leadership", he said.

"Performance management is a waste of time," said Professor Sheehan. "Managers don't want to do appraisals and staff don't want to be appraised."

He argued that appraisals tended to focus on the negative and were based on stereotypical assumptions, measurement against dubious criteria, observations that are not representative and biased understanding of individual capabilities. "Feedback is usually ineffectual and inappropriate."

Staff are often given inconsistent messages about what aspects of their "performance" are considered important.

"A university might say it encourages teamwork and spend thousands on team-building exercises, then give an employee a personal development plan that is all about the individual. It doesn't make sense."

When handling a complaint or a dispute, managers should "err on the side of the positive" and attempt to establish the full facts before criticising staff, he added.

A report for the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education published last year said that a massive programme of investment in human resource management at universities had not improved the sector's performance.

The sector has been handed £880 million since 2000 under the Government's "Rewarding and developing staff" initiative.

The report, Human Resource Management and University Performance, found that the least effective practices in university HR included performance management and succession planning.

The report's author, David Guest, professor of organisational psychology and HR management at King's College London, said that good performance management, including helping individuals to set priorities and goals, providing regular feedback and ensuring staff have the resources necessary to do their jobs, was to be encouraged.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

POSITIVE LIFE CHOICES BUT MIXED MESSAGES

Academics at Canterbury Christ Church University took part in "energy audits" and sampled complementary therapies at a staff development awayday earlier this month.

The awayday, on the theme of "work-life balance", was led by Val Irvin, head of the university's centre for leadership and management development, and chaplain Sue Blade.

Morning sessions covered "integration and spiritual health", and "integration and balance as a positive life choice". After lunch, staff sampled complementary and alternative therapies.

"During these sessions experienced local practitioners will provide a little theoretical background as to the therapy and then you will have the opportunity to sample," an invitation to the event said.

Dennis Hayes, head of the Centre for Professional Learning at the university, said the day sounded like "good fun" and that staff would have enjoyed it. But he added that the underlying message of such events suggested that "we all can't cope".

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