Performance Management is an Oxymoron

I recently read a definition of performance management from the Reform Support Network which supports the Race To TheTop efforts in the various state education agencies. The definition of performance management and the practices described are counter to my experiences of how outstanding school leadership and actual school improvement. The very term performance management is an oxymoron. The definition of oxymoron is a phrase that contains words when put together are contradictory such as “jumbo shrimp.” We do not manage performance! We may manage resources, manage projects or manage processes. The management aspect for resources, projects and processes is to reduce waste, meet expectations and meet timelines. There are a variety of management practices to ensure that these go well.

We do historically use the term managing people, but more recent literature argues we should talk about leading people, while we manage the resources and procedures within the organization. Management is about bringing effort to a narrow focus, standardizing practices and procedures and using resources efficiently.

Schools and education systems are complex organizations that are made up of millions of interactions among students, staff and parents. We all aspire to maximum performance of the education professionals. However, when we attempt to manage practices, such as those outlined in this overview of performance management, we may create the opposite effect. I believe this is a source of much of the criticism of implementation of Common Core Standards and Race To The Top projects.

The key elements of performance management outlined in this Reform Support Network definition include clarity of outcomes, alignment of resources, collection and use of data and accountability for results. These may be useful management practices, however I would argue they will not yield maximum performance of professionals in education.

Instead of managing performance, we
coach performance, we inspire performance and we recognize performance. We can easily use a number of sports metaphors to make this point. We admire and recognize outstanding sports performances. Sports champions did not arrive at this outstanding performance through a management system. We do not manage the performance of these outstanding individuals, we coach in support and guide them. The same is true in education, if we expect high levels of performance from our educators, we should focus on coaching, inspiring and recognizing performance instead of managing it.

Clarity of outcomes is important. But when every person must aspire for the same identical outcomes, we distort the organization since not everyone is interested in that outcome. Dan Pink, in his book
Drive clearly identifies one of the key elements that leads to high levels of motivation is autonomy and choice. While schools and education needs to have a collective vision, professionals in that system will strive for higher level performance when they have some choice and autonomy. The efforts under Race To The Top have reduced teacher autonomy.

Data is important, but remember the drive to higher levels of performance needs to come from within the individual. Individuals must own their on data. When we make individuals aware of their performance through quantitative measures, it can inspire greater effort on their part. Data needs to be used to inform rather than indict.

Accountability is not punishing, but more removing the secrecy to that performance and not allowing performance to be a private occurrence. Individuals strive for higher levels of performance when more people are aware and observe the performance. Weak teaching can occur when no one observes the teaching. However, too much accountability becomes stifling to increasing performance. A useful metaphor here is the deer in the headlights scenario. The bright illumination of car headlights that shines on a wild deer in the middle of the road does not inspire outstanding performance. In contrast, it often inspires fear and inaction, rather than movement and escape. I think the same can be true of educators when accountability is a bright spotlight from far away. This drastic accountability spotlight instills fear and inaction in our educators.

Accountability also needs to be a shared accountability. Teams perform better than individuals and when that accountability is accepted among entire team, it can inspire great performance by all members of those teams. The teacher evaluation mandates actually reduce shared accountability.

We need to change our mindset if we expect educators to perform at higher levels. We need to move away from believing that we can manage high levels of performance to efforts that inspire recognize and coach outstanding performance in this complex enterprise we call school..