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Purpose ‐ The aim of this article is to investigate how managers see, interpret and make sense of their performance management system experiences and recommend the way forward for both policy and practice, in what makes effective appraisal systems. Design/methodology/approach ‐ The study applied the repertory grid to elicit the personal constructs of how managers make sense of their appraisal experiences. The cognitive mapping methodology allows the researcher to go deep into the respondents' "theories in use" to provide new insights on how they "think". This, in turn, allows a better understanding of the language managers use to make sense of the experiences. Findings ‐ Core conceptual dimensions, cognitive maps and cluster diagrams were generated, providing implications for research, practice and new directions for future research. Researchlimitations/implications ‐ Although the application of the grid technique was time-consuming, the finer grain level of analysis provided a deeper appreciation of managers' "theories in use". The study provides a cross-sectional view of the current state of managerial cognitions. Findings open up new ways of thinking and new way of doing in appraisal research and practice. Practical implications ‐ The findings provided very meaningful insights on what managers look for in appraisal system effectiveness, along with the documentation of how they make connections between their own elicited personal constructs on system effectiveness. Originality/value ‐ The paper makes a modest contribution to both theory and practice from the perspective of managerial cognitions about the entire appraisal systems using a method originating from clinical psychology.