The Performance Development Review process (PDR) is gaining prominence in many schools and colleges, in an attempt to standardise and formalise performance management conversations. Depending on the mindset and skills of managers and staff, this process can be experienced in very different ways, some more positive and productive than others. This blog post is an attempt to pull together the range of approaches and views that I am encountering about PDRs in my role as a freelance consultant, trainer and coach in schools and colleges.
Pitfall 1: The bureaucracy trap
In some settings PDRs can be viewed, executed and experienced as an administrative, bureaucratic process detached from deep reflection or true developmental intent. Meetings are held several times a year between manager and managee to look at performance targets, tick off points on a form and get the paperwork filed for another three months. It is about getting an operational process done, about “Getting HR off my back,” as one manager confessed to me recently. There is a feeling that this is about compliance on both sides, about an organisational commitment to checking in with/up on staff. It is not viewed or experienced as an authentic reflective and developmental opportunity. In my experience this is often the case when staff played little or no role in shaping the purpose and process of PDR- it has simply been imposed on them and they feel little genuine engagement with it.
Pitfall 2: The snapshot conversation
Another feature of PDRs can be their isolation from dialogue across the year. Just like a poorly planned lesson observation process, the meetings don’t connect with wider development work or the holistic picture of the staff member. They often focus predominantly on the appraisal targets from last year and neglect key aspects of work that the staff member is developing in the current year.
In some contexts, PDRs are the main or only 1:1 that managees have with their manager, providing few opportunities for ongoing reflective conversation or discussion about progress beyond whatever may be happening informally.
In many teams, PDR targets are set in one meeting and not re-visited until review meetings 4-6 months later. This is not live, ongoing developmental dialogue at work – there are no slots provided for peers to discuss targets or developmental activities, reflect and problem solve together. The developmental aspect of PDR isn’t being valued and prioritised in operational life and the review process is sketchy at best.
Tips for fostering PDR as an engaging process for development
I recommend gathering some feedback from staff about their experience of the current model and its impact on their mindset, motivation and development at work. Round table discussions can yield rich feedback; team discussions can produce a summary of points and views, full of useful context-specific details. Ask about what isn’t working as well as what is and elicit suggestions for enhancement and improvement. The PDR process needs to engage staff and affect their mindset and motivation, so it is important to involve them in its design and evolution in practice. It is about developing their performance so their buy-in and involvement is vital to making a model fit for purpose and context.
Look at the year and think about how to structure the PDR process to fit in with work in curriculum and operations. Summer term is often quieter in schools and colleges so it can make sense to start identifying draft targets at that point, following on from end of year reviews and plans for the next year. At this time, staff still have issues and challenges at work fresh in their minds and have a little space to focus on what needs attention the following year. In many institutions this process is forced into the hectic autumn term when teams are overloaded with getting learners bedded in, systems up and running and lesson observations completed. It is not the best quality reflective space to work in – better to have some draft targets beforehand and use the autumn to refine or re-focus them as required.
The nature of targets
In some settings targets are linked to strategic plans and handed down the management chain to staff with no individual input. There is little chance to look at personal skills, areas of interest or aspiration, areas to explore or research for the individual. If PDR is to be engaging at a personal level, at least some of the targets need to be differentiated and personalised, emerging from a conversation about the staff member as a professional and a learner. It is not enough for the school or college to simply parcel out what IT needs from the worker. Staff members need to play an active role in the process of developing their own skills, knowledge and practices.
A more personalised, bespoke PDR conversation model necessitates space and time over the year to reflect on progress and refine actions. Some managers I have met recently are holding 1:1 meetings once or twice a term to create that ongoing dialogue space. They tell me it is helpful to take the dialogue into team meetings, staff development days and CPD slots, for staff to work in clusters to discuss what they are working on, review progress and identify next steps.
PDR as a joined-up reflective process
If time is allocated each term to short slots for reflection and action planning around targets, it can help teams to follow the developmental thread through the year in useful, practical ways. Emerging issues and needs can be incorporated to keep up momentum and ensure the focus remains current and relevant. In some settings this means that targets get signed off in year, creating space for other activities or areas of focus at work.
For PDR to work in this way, it is very helpful for managers have skills in reflective dialogue and coaching/mentoring. These skills help people to become more effective and insightful at listening, posing questions and identifying useful actions with staff. PDR can become a richer, more engaging and reflective process for everyone involved when these skills are used in conversations with teams and individuals.
If your organisation needs some support to review and improve the PDR process or to build reflective dialogue and coaching/mentoring skills, I hope you will get in touch with me: