Performance Management - what does the evidence say?

This week has seen the TES publish two articles on performance management.  One article was by Joe Baron – a pseudonym for a teacher of history – who felt he had been a victim of performance management and was being held accountable for results beyond his control.  The second article was by Rebecca Foster – identifying five ways in which performance management could be improved  and which include: be clear about the goal; make sure it’s a process ‘done with’; think carefully about how targets can be met; be clear about when things should happen; and, don’t set meaningless targets.  As such, there is little doubt that performance management can be both distressing for appraisees and difficult for appraisers to get right.  Indeed, given some of these difficulties there are an increasing number of reports that in the world of business that the annual performance management cycle is being abandoned by many  organisations, including many organisations deemed to the ‘world class’ - Cappelli and Tavis (2016).

So with this in mind, it seems sensible for the evidence-based school leader to look at the research evidence on effective performance management.  To help do this, I will turn to Gifford (2016) – who based on rapid evidence assessments produced by the Center for Evidence-Based Management – has written a report on what works in performance management.   In doing so, I will focus on five  issues; first, what evidence-base was used to inform the rapid evidence assessments; two, what do we mean by term – performance management; three, what works and in goal setting (and what doesn’t)?; four,what works in performance appraisals and what doesn’t; five, the implications for colleagues who have the ability to influence the design and implementation of performance management systems, within their schools. 

The evidence-base

·      Two rapid evidence-assessment carried out by the Center for Evidence-Based Management – which included

o   On goal setting - 34 meta-analyses and 19 single studies

o   On performance management - 23 meta-analyses and 37 single studies.

A definition of performance management

One of the problems with discussing what works in respect to performance management is that there is no agreed or definitive definition of performance managements.   Gifford notes that performance management is viewed as an activity

·      Establishes objectives

·      Improves performance

·      Holds people to account

What works in goal setting (and what doesn’t)?

·      Challenging, clear and specific goals in relation to relatively straightforward tasks i.e those which are familiar and predictable

·      Challenging, clear and specific goals tend to work less well on complex tasks and have a negative impact on performance.

·      In complex tasks what tends to work are more general ‘do your best’ outcome goals – the research suggests this is because ‘do-your-best’ goals encourage people to think about task relevant ways to achieve their goals.  Whereas, specific challenging goals leads to people focussing on the potential negative consequences of failure.

·      It is necessary to distinguish between outcome goals and behavioural and learning goals. Behavioural and learning goals are the most effective way of driving performance for as long as it takes for people to master those set of skills

·      Short-term goals tend to help when employees are learning new skills or at an early developmental stage of their careers

·      Internal or self-set goals tend to work no better than external or assigned goals.  The power of external set goals comes from the external expectations, which are more motivating

·      Individuals who have a learning orientation (process) respond better to goals than people who have a performance orientation (outcomes)

·      People who view themselves in terms of their own personal ability, preferences or values – gravitate towards individual goals. People who views themselves primarily in terms of their relationship with others gravitate towards team or group goals.

·      Providing people with feedback on how they are doing against their goals increases the chances of those goals being reached.  

What works in performance appraisals (and what doesn’t)?

·      It’s people’s reactions to the feedback not the feedback itself that matters (see

·      It makes sense to check in with staff following an appraisals to check out how the ‘feedback’ has landed and whether there any issues which need to be addressed

·      People want fairness and procedural justice (see

·      People should ideally not self-assess their performance but instead get evidence about performance from other sources– and it does not matter how this done.

·      Appraisal conversations which are genuinely two way leads individuals responding more favourably

·      The quality of the relationship between the appraiser and the appraisee influences whether appraisals leads to better performance or not.

·      There is some evidence that it is better to focus on building on strengths rather than fixing weaknesses i.e focus on the positive rather than the negative

·      Personality variables moderates employee’s reaction to feedback especially negative feedback

Implications for the design and implementation of performance management systems within schools?

·      It might be worth auditing elements of your current performance management system against the evidence-based findings – particularly the use of SMART objectives for complex tasks

·      Where there is a misalignment between your current system and the  summary of ‘evidence’ have a look at the research evidence to see whether there are any ‘nuances’ in the research – which you need to be aware of.

·      Remember – just because something worked ‘somewhere’ or appears to work ‘widely’ does not mean it will automatically work in your setting.

·      How much time are you spending with colleagues to help them improve on how they receive and act on feedback?

·      Are you trying to combine accountability and development within the same system, if so, there’s a good chance that you will ‘fall between two stools’ with your system failing to meet the needs of the various interested partiies

·      Evidence-based practice is not limited to teaching and learning but extends to all aspects of the work of the school or trust.

·      To what extent was research evidence used when designing the current performance management system?

·      Are there other school systems/processes which would benefit from the an ‘evidence’ informed review/audit

And finally

If you are interested in finding out more about how to become an evidence-based manager, I’d recommend that you have a look at two recently published books - Latham (2018) and Barends and Rosseau (2018).  Alternatively, you may wish to have a look at my own recently book on evidence-based school leadership and management- Jones (2018)


Barends, E. and Rosseau, D. (2018). Evidence-Based Management: How to Use Evidence to Make Better Organizational Decisions. London. Kogan-Page.

Cappelli, P. and Tavis, A. (2016). The Performance Management Revolution. Harvard business review. 94. 10. 58-67.

Gifford, J. (2016). Could Do Better? Assessing What Works in Performance Management Research Report. London Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

Jones, G. (2018). Evidence-Based School Leadership and Management: A Practical Guide. London. SAGE Publishing.

Latham, G. (2018). Becoming the Evidence-Based Manager (Second Edition). London Nicholas Brearley Publishing. tasks