Double standards? How historical and political aspiration levels guide managerial performance information use

Date01 December 2017
AuthorJakob Majlund Holm
Published date01 December 2017
Double standards? How historical and political
aspiration levels guide managerial performance
information use
Jakob Majlund Holm
Department of Political Science, Aarhus
University, Aarhus, Denmark
Jakob Majlund Holm, Department of Political
Science, Aarhus University, Bartholins Allé
7, Aarhus 8000, Denmark.
Performance evaluations are a vital part of how public managers
react to performance information. Yet, we know little about the
way evaluations unfold and the reactions they produce. This article
examines the idea that historical and political aspiration levels
guide evaluations by labelling performance results as either a fail-
ure or success. Thus, the same result could lead to different evalu-
ations and reactions depending on the aspiration level. The study
also tests the idea that a negativity bias characterizes managers'
reactions to political performance feedback. A survey experiment
among a sample of principals in Danish public schools is used to
examine these hypotheses. The results show that aspiration levels
change principals' interpretation and reaction to otherwise identi-
cal performance results, but primarily in situations with positive
historical and political feedback. Conflicting feedback from two
aspiration levels makes principals rely mostly on the signals from
the historical aspiration level.
Evaluation of organizational performance is a key aspect of any managerial position. Managers need to evaluate per-
formance to have a general awareness of organizational processes and because evaluations act as catalysts for a
number of important decisions (Behn 2003; de Lancer Julnes 2006; Raudla 2012). The tools for performance evalu-
ations have changed quite dramatically for public managers in recent years. Gone are the days when managers could
rely only on gut feelings. Today, performance management systems support the process with performance informa-
tion (Moynihan and Pandey 2010; Taylor 2011). While managers are supposed to integrate the information in their
evaluations, we know little about how this process unfolds. This is unfortunate because the subjective assessments
are the main driver of managerial action and organizational change (Meier et al. 2015).
The idea put forward in this article is that aspiration levels guide how managers evaluate performance results
and when they react to them. This claim originates from the behavioural model that was developed by March and
Simon (1958) and Cyert and March (1963). In this model, managers are expected to form their evaluations by
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12379
1026 © 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Public Administration. 2017;95:10261040.

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