Surviving the performance management of academic work: Evidence from young Chinese academics

Year: 2019

Author: Huang, Ya-Ting

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Performance management is broadly defined as a package of organizational policies, practices, and design features, which interact with each another and complement and strengthen one another to achieve the desired employee performance (Pulakos, 2009). Specifically, Aguinis and Pierce (2008, p. 139) define performance management as a ‘continuous process of identifying, measuring and developing the performance of individuals and aligning performance with the strategic goals of the organizations’. In response to mounting financial constraints, growing student population, and increasing expectations of quality faced by modern universities, performance management has been instituted by higher education institutions worldwide to rationalize their core activities, resulting in expectations of overwhelming appropriateness of requirements, demands, and responsibilities.

Despite predominant macro-level changes of performance management at Chinese universities, little attention has been paid to how the disciplinary technologies have been interpreted and enacted at the level of individual academics. A qualitative case study approach was used in this study, mainly because it facilitates describing, understanding, and explaining a complex phenomenon within its context and serves the research purpose of answering the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions (Baxter & Jack, 2008). It is context-specific to explore how young academics survive performance management, which governs their academic work to a great extent. The qualitative case study was chosen to explore the proposed research questions, mainly because it allows an in-depth exploration of the specific context.

Using qualitative data with 26 participants at a Chinese research university, this study provides evidence of collective compliance with the performative imperatives. Moreover, the process of perverse learning, during which opportunistic behaviors are taken to ‘play the game’, has contributed to the emergence of performance paradox. The concept of ‘performance paradox’ illustrates ‘a declining relationship or a weaker correlation between actual and reported performance’ (Van Thiel & Leeuw, 2002, p. 271). As summarized by Van Thiel and Leeuw (2002), the occurrence of performance paradox is caused by four processes. Particularly, the process of perverse learning, which leads organizations or individuals to manipulate the performance indicators, has brought about the improvement of measured performance rather than actual performance. In addition, the findings do not indicate any vocal resistance in public but conscientious efforts have been taken in private by some of the participants to navigating through the performance paradox in order to alleviate the dysfunctional consequences caused by the perverse learning.