Performance reviews: how to get them right

21st September 2018 at 00:00
Performance reviews can be a source of emotional turbulence for both the reviewer and the reviewee, writes Nick Gallop. But, as a new headteacher, if you prepare for and manage them well, they can be a positive experience for both parties

The performance appraisal is dead. At least, that’s what popular wisdom around performance management would have us believe. In recent years, businesses have been increasingly moving away from traditional annual appraisal meetings and towards more informal methods of goal-setting and delivering performance-related feedback, with companies such as Netflix, Accenture and Adobe making headlines for axing appraisals.

But what does this mean for schools? The appraisal of teachers on a two-year cycle was made compulsory in 1991, and with performance-related pay being introduced in 2013, effective systems of performance review are now well established in most schools and colleges. They aren’t likely to be going anywhere anytime soon.

As a new headteacher, however, the process can feel less than straightforward. And even experienced heads need a recap. So, what makes for an effective performance management cycle?

1. Understand (and set) the culture
The mechanics of the review process are one thing, but the success of any appraisal cycle depends upon: establishing a cultural commitment to open professional dialogue; valuing regular review for the individual as well as the institution; and professional trust.

Before anything else, consider the past commitment to performance review in your institution. How well is its purpose and ethos understood by staff? Has time been taken to communicate development values and does all formal written documentation reflect these values?

If there are no relevant, recent examples of positive or affirming outcomes from review meetings, then the whole process itself may need a review.

As with so many aspects of professional life, disappointing reviews are often the result of a lack of clarity at the outset. Make sure that you are clear and specific about what you want to have achieved by the end of it.

2. Prepare the ground

Preparing for a review meeting is as important as the meeting itself. There are administrative aspects to collate and reflect upon, such as past reviews, lesson observations and sections of the review documentation for leaders to complete. In addition, consider the individual being reviewed; the stage of their career and their likely aspirations. Reflect carefully upon aspects of feedback that the reviewee may find difficult to hear. Remember especially that 360-degree colleague or pupil feedback can be an acutely sensitive area.

Think about how recognised coaching styles can shape discussions, especially if colleagues are experiencing difficulties with aspects of their professional lives.

3. Manage the meeting

Be aware that many people worry about their performance review. It is not a time for the delivery of major surprises. Issues with specific areas of performance, or critical situations that need to be handled, should be dealt with whenever they arise.

Similarly, if there are formal performance- or conduct- management processes in place, these may be referenced but should not be managed through the review process.

Listen. A rule of thumb is that a reviewee should talk more than a reviewer. Avoid getting side-tracked or straying into non-relevant aspects of professional or personal lives. You should remain firmly focused upon the reviewee and the review process itself.

4. Give effective feedback

Delivering constructive, and sometimes difficult, feedback to colleagues is not an easy skill to master. It can be helpful to become familiar with recognised techniques for doing so. The situation, task, action, result (Star) technique can help to depersonalise emotive or sensitive issues and ensure that feedback is objectively framed upon the evidence.

This is important because research suggests that it is a person’s reaction to feedback, rather than the feedback itself, that determines how it affects performance. A 2016 report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) cited a meta-analysis by Smither et al (2005), which showed that “employees who express positive emotions immediately after receiving feedback go on to obtain higher performance ratings” than those who express negative emotions. And the most important factor in whether employees respond positively or negatively is whether or not they see feedback as fair.

5. Set clear targets

Every review should end with a clear set of goals for the reviewee. Conventional wisdom dictates that these goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic or relevant and time-bound (Smart). However, according to the CIPD, while specific and challenging goals are “generally a powerful motivator”, they can be problematic in more complex roles where employees have to navigate interrelated steps or adapt to unfamiliar cues. In these circumstances, evidence suggests that “do-your-best” directives and goals focused on learning and behaviour will do more to help employees focus and perform well.

Reviewers should think laterally about how individuals can develop themselves. The process of developing staff should be as well-resourced as possible, but “going on a course” is often a default option that can be far from the best. Using internal expertise, shadowing those in other schools, project work and working group attendance are all examples of how developmental needs can be met creatively.

Nick Gallop is headmaster of Stamford School in Lincolnshire. He tweets @Stamford_Head

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