THE PERFORMANCE PARADOX
Updated: Jun 25
Part 2 of a series on performance management for education leaders.
In part one, I advanced the idea that for education leaders, while the momentum is leaning towards a comprehensive solution to the absence of human capital development processes, we're not there yet. Human resource divisions in education have historically managed through control systems, a model that has been pushed out in the private sector by an agile model capable of functioning as a mechanism for performance management. Without a comprehensive performance management system, threats to validity (the extent to which the tool measures the relevant aspects of performance) and reliability (how consistent the same measuring tool works), including the Halo Effect, compromise both process and product, engender mistrust, and expose organizations to litigation. In part two, I will discuss how we arrived here and what we can do differently to shift the paradigm.
To provide context, consider the impact international competition and the resultant economic declines in the 1980’s had on American industry. The automotive industry was one of many that suffered measurable loses in market share and had to reinvent itself. During this period, reform efforts extended to the public sector, as governmental agencies, including school districts, were swept into the national movement to measure. Referred to at its height as the “audit explosion,” a high priority was assigned to measuring output and outcomes. This movement included implementing performance management systems. America’s need to recapture its competitive edge became a nationalist passion (recall Sputnik), occupying a central position in a national dialogue on making America great again.
Politicians were quick to embrace the rise of administrative reform and the notion of an audit society, carrying the narrative that governmental agencies, like private industry, need to measure up to make America great again (You may remember Ronald Reagan's slogan, "Let's make America great again," during his presidential campaign).
Education as an industry did not embrace measuring their managers. The literature suggests that the public sector, in general, rejected performance-based management. It may be explained by the performance paradox. The weak correlation between performance indicators and performance itself is a phenomenon caused by the tendency of performance indicators to run down over time. As they lose value as measurements of performance, they no longer discriminate between good and bad performers. Four processes exemplify this phenomenon: positive learning, perverse learning, selection, and suppression. It should be clear that the paradox is not about performance. Instead, it is about the reports on performance. Therein lies the paradox, contrary to the expectation, indicators do not give an accurate report of performance. Unlike the private sector, where HR teams focus on talent management and employ experts in the field of performance management who can mitigate the threats, education is less agile.
In Flawed advice and the management trap: How managers can know when they’re getting good advice and when they’re not, esteemed business theorist Chris Argyris, who explored the behavior of senior executives among his many research interests, defined the paradox as follows: "Practitioners say that appraisals are necessary to help define and ensure effective performance. On the other hand, many practitioners are also justifiably skeptical about the credibility of performance ratings."
Organizational behavior theorist Harlow Cohen added, "Managers know what to do to improve performance, but actually ignore or act in contradiction to either their strongest instincts or to the data available to them."
See my recent blog on Campbell’s Law and the LCAP for an explanation of how corruption pressures distort intended outcomes, another paradoxical dilemma common in a measurement culture. It may appear that the inability to manage conflict is at least partly responsible for the absence of a performance management system. However, it may instead be an inability to manage agreement that's at the heart of the problem. Jerry Harvey famously proposed this dilemma. He coined it the Abilene Paradox.
Harvey found that organizations frequently take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and therefore defeat the very purposes they are trying to achieve. I'll circle back to this idea later in this series.
Intuitively, it would appear that the rejection of a system to measure performance was responsible for American industry losing its competitive edge in the first place. That indeed was the case in the private sector. In the public sector, however, measuring performance was wrought with ambiguity and consequently never gained traction. It actually had the opposite effect, it has proven to be counterproductive. Many private sector techniques have proven to be unsuccessful in the public sector; in this case, the measure of performance indicators.
The problem, as I have observed, is that education agencies are semi-autonomous organizations operating in a quasi-market environment. Choice, charter schools, and privatization are resisted, not embraced. It’s as though we reject the democracy of choice when it relates to education options. In any other environment we embrace it. While competition has pushed the monopoly model into oblivion, a performance-based orientation has not proven to be a worthy substitute for the control system approach. Anymore then self-management has proven to be a worthy substitute for hierarchical piloting.
Where does this leave us? The strong belief in the measurability of performance in the public sector needs to be reframed, not abandoned.
The approach may have been too simplistic, given the complexity of the task, but it was not misplaced. It was further marginalized by the unintended consequence of the audit explosion: overregulation. In education, look no further than NCLB and the accountability movement that set education back to the era of the Coleman report. It's led to widespread segregation not seen since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
I contend that education is now in a place where performance management systems can assume a primary role in school improvement. We’ve learned from the mistakes of the past and have evolved to a place where student outcomes, not adult agendas, can take center stage. The only question is how to develop such a system at a time when the challenges educators face have never been greater.
Part three will explore the possibilities.