Performance management of researchers


Performance management is about ensuring that:

  • each researcher knows what is expected of them and how that contributes to the wider goals of the team, unit and institution
  • your team are given the opportunity to use their skills effectively and develop them to fulfil their potential
  • your researchers build the relationships to allow them to work well as a team
  • your team remains motivated
  • the best researchers are identified and retained
  • those who are not performing so well can be identified and encouraged to improve
  • ultimately, the project you are leading is completed successfully and on time.

It is also about you: being aware of how your own behaviour impacts on the performance of your research team so you can improve to get the best out of those around you.

The management role of the principal investigator

As principal investigator (PI) you will have day-to-day responsibility for managing your researchers and as such will be expected to motivate your staff, help them work to their full potential, continuously improve their performance and ensure they get their work done. The UK Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers expresses the expectation that

"Research managers should be required to participate in active performance management, including career development guidance, and supervision of those who work in their teams." (Section B. 3)

Institutional support

While you as the principal investigator play the central role in managing the performance of your researchers, this is not a task that you must, or even should, do alone. Your institution will have support mechanisms in place that you and your researchers can take advantage of. Some, such as induction of new staff, may be arranged by the institution; institutions that have adopted clear performance management processes are likely to provide support or training for all those involved.

Staff induction

Induction sessions for new staff may not instinctively seem part of performance management but can be important in starting a newly employed researcher off in the right way. Information on the institution's structure, goals, and their place within that, learning about their rights and responsibilities and the development opportunities available to them can be invaluable in ensuring your team is well informed and feel part of the organisation from the start. It will also save you time. Induction is not just an institutional activity; you will also want to make sure new staff are adequately inducted into the department, your team and their role.


Most institutions require new staff to complete a period of probation. For you this is an opportunity to use an institutional requirement to help manage your researchers. Even the most able new staff member can take time to adjust to new surroundings and possibly a new work culture. The routines, unspoken norms and expectations of your work environment may seem second nature to you but can be strange and even difficult to someone coming from the outside. A good manager can use the probation period as a prompt to focus their attention on a new staff member and ensure that they feel part of the team. It is also (rarely) the opportunity to correct a recruitment error. If someone really is not suited to the role then it is no help to either you or them to allow them to continue in it. So treat your probationary judgments seriously and don't just 'nod' weak staff through in the hope that things will get better.


Formal annual appraisal is not only required by most institutions but is an essential part of performance management. Having the opportunity to spend dedicated time discussing their performance and career goals can be immensely valuable for a researcher. For you it is a great opportunity to ensure your staff are continuing to develop and that you understand their goals and objectives. The appraisal system is dealt with in the appraisal section.

Staff development

Your institution will have programmes already in place to help get the best out of your staff. Your job is to work with your researchers to help them identify the areas in which they need, or would like, to develop and to encourage them to use the opportunities available to them effectively. The Researcher Development Framework (RDF) has been developed to help researchers identify needs and plan effectively for their own development; this could help focus your discussions. 

Attendance on training courses for their own sake will be of little value but targeted development opportunities used intelligently and strategically can help maintain and improve the performance of your staff enormously. Some institutions give researchers the formal right to a specified number of days development each year, others leave it to the discretion of the researcher and their manager. Whatever the situation in your institution, the attitude of the PI to development opportunities both inside and outside of the institution can be crucial to whether researchers continue to develop their skills and careers: this in turn can have an impact on how they perform for you.