AN AFTERWORD ON THE PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT SERIES
Updated: Oct 30
Some additional thoughts thanks to all of the feedback I received from readers of the series on leadership performance management.
The feedback I’ve received on my leadership performance management systems series has compelled me to write this afterword to tidy up the jumbled mass of ideas I spilled onto the pages of this series while trying to make sense of a lifeless and predictable process that would be well served to evaluate its own performance as a tool for organizational improvement. Despite a growing awareness of what science has found to be more effective practices, education clings tightly to a model that I can argue creates problems (i.e. fosters mistrust, perpetuates decision-making based on faulty assumptions, emphasizes rules and processes at the expense of good communication) instead of solving them. It defies logic..as one reader cleverly pointed out by suggesting (presumably satirically but who knows) building trust between evaluator and evaluate by instituting professional mutualism, a peer-review reciprocity model common among scientists, but absent in the field of performance management. It made me think...of lots of things actually.
This is a deeply divided issue with persuasive arguments for and against remodeling. It’s hardly permeated the hallowed halls of education, however, in contrast to the private sector where it continues to be a hotly debated topic. Years of trial and error since new models emerged in the first decade of the 21st Century have left it where it started, for the most part, mostly failing to yield significant returns given the investment of time to execute the entire process from start to finish.
In education, the standard operating procedure for leadership performance management remains oddly impersonal and undifferentiated in an era when personalization and differentiation have become much more than buzzwords in an increasingly consumer-driven education marketplace.
As I’ve shared in this series, I am working with my team to reinvent our control system model. Generic and formulaic as originally designed to serve as a compliance and accountability model, it’s my intention to collaboratively build a personal and personally rewarding system for both the evaluate and the evaluator. In Designing a Performance Management System, part four of this series, I outlined the design principles of simplicity, variety, collaboration, and continuous improvement as a framework for our redesign process.
Like all change models, the process starts with a reality check (Read about the Stockdale Paradox). As a superintendent responding to this series of essays wrote, “I’ve never seen anyone evaluated into a more effective educator, but I’ve seen many “coached-up” through a cycle of feedback and reflection.” Her observation and experiences as a veteran educator who’s made it to the top of the pyramid, possibly even being coached-up herself along the way, speaks to a fundamental organizational reality: Leadership excellence is not scalable. Ratings scales are quantitative assessments. Yet, they remain a staple of most leadership performance appraisal systems, in one form or another.
Performance ratings are subjected to the Halo Effect and a host of other vulnerabilities, all of which build mistrust, that are among the many reasons any system utilizing ratings to trigger improvement should be updated.
I expect our team to identify leadership concepts that can be translated into practice (theory to practice) and deconstructed into behaviors, techniques, and strategies that can be measured. The design principles of simplicity and collaboration guide this work with its focus on personalization through questioning entrenched assumptions and beliefs. In a recent essay, The Personality Dimension of Leadership, I discussed behavioral consistency, which I argued is grounded in authenticity (The “You Are Who You Are” principle). That translates into leaders operating according to their internal compass. Given that, a rating scale will not effectively measure performance. Frequent interaction and multiple observations, designed to build trust among the evaluate and evaluator, is a much more effective approach to make the deep connections necessary to change behavior.
Superintendents, HR practitioners, and others, weighed in on why they believe the models they’ve experienced have been ineffective as drivers to change behavior. The theme of their reaction revolved around clarity of purpose.
Many of them targeted the common complaint that performance management in general (the entire formal appraisal system) serves so many purposes, that it serves none, at least not very well. One superintendent who has risen through the ranks up the HR ladder, explained it this way, “Examining performance management through an HR lens is like looking through a prism of compliance. It’s a system driven by an administrative purpose.” Characterized by its role in making compensation decisions, promotions and assignments, defending against legal challenges, and holding under-performers accountable, the control system model stands in stark contrast to agile models focused on developmental purposes. They are marked by processes such as identifying training and development needs, providing career guidance and developmental opportunities, enhancing communication and relationships among employees and managers, ensuring employees receive effective feedback, and increasing employee engagement through the empowering act of taking greater ownership of their performance goals. I can speak from my own experiences and confidently say that everyone doesn't embrace this model either. Many would prefer to be left alone, to say it frankly. It may be a human condition that evaluation bumps up against.
Other readers who have followed trends in HR management closely, pointed out that performance management in the private sector is for virtually all members of the team, not just leaders.
One current HR practitioner in education captured the essence of the movement, “The current movement is centered on constant learning for everyone, what we refer to as continuous improvement in education. Self-awareness through reflection and data analysis helps leaders paint an accurate picture of their own performance.” Hallmarks of this model include collaborating to set goals, meeting regularly to evaluate progress, and participating in reflective dialogues. No small task, the key to reflective dialogues is grounded in using language carefully and strategically to foster self-awareness, similar to the objectives of cognitive coaching between teachers and administrators. This sophisticated approach requires a highly trained leadership team. There is much to learn from high-functioning teacher-administrator professional relationships.
At its highest level, deeply held assumptions and beliefs are challenged by savvy thought partners. The reciprocal process helps the evaluator and the evaluate restructure each other’s thinking, ultimately connecting ourselves to our psyches. Our psyches are a much more private place, compared to our personalities, and can have a far greater impact on our leadership style.
My final point of this final essay comes courtesy of a current superintendent, who did not rise to her position up the HR ladder. She echoed a similar sentiment related to the above idea when she wondered whether the resistance to change in education is somehow influenced or effected by the pervasive influence of tenure in education. Viewing organizations as social systems, she argued that tenure is an institutional condition. Consequently, the rate and form of diffusion related to innovative ideas and alternative approaches spreading more widely in school districts is determined more by the intimacy between our institutional DNA and an establishment that resists genetic engineering, than it is by science, or on a more simplistic level, by the notion of doing the right thing.
Poor evaluations historically have rarely resulted in any significant consequence, including loss of employment for chronic under-performers. Given that acceptance of impotence, the system that supports it continues to be viewed as a poor investment of energy and time.
While the viewpoints expressed here are limited by the small sample size and unscientific and casual nature of gathering those opinions, it’s consistent with the literature. All of our frustration with performance management stems from a lack of follow-through; rendering the accountability process, which rests at the core of education's control system, as inconsequential. The process I will lead in my district to create a collaborative model will challenge the status quo, as leaders in the private sector have done for the last twenty years in search of a way to improve performance. Their bottom line depends on it.
One astute reader, who leads by example, not by positional authority, suggested we can all save ourselves lots of time, energy, and money by playing a zero-sum game and focus our limited time and resources on the hiring function instead. I concur. If the leadership pipeline were endowing us with an endless stream of highly qualified leaders, that would definitely be a better choice. But it’s not...at least it’s not in many hard-to-staff districts....and then there’s the good to great principle for districts that have an active pipeline. Continuous improvement is not an event, it's a process.
I have found some educators at the highest level to be unyielding when it comes to pursuing institutional change. They are always pushing the envelope. Others take a cautious approach. I'm currently exploring reasons why, but my initial thesis is that superintendents are overly concerned with sociopolitical implications. Namely, job security, and the suspicions a “reform-minded” agenda evoke. That's a reality for superintendents, particularly for those rising through the system. Friends, colleagues, and readers who know me well know that I’ve been advancing this maxim acquired through my associations with many mentors who have walked in my shoes before me as well as with many who now walk with me: “The superintendency is a great last job. Because you can be beholden to children, not adults.”
That being said, I'm reserving judgment until I explore it further. But this is where I stand today.