Performance-based management (PBM) has become a dominant form of governance in health care and there is a need for careful assessment of its function and effects. This article contains a cross-disciplinary literature synthesis of current studies of PBM. Literature was retrieved by database searches and categorized according to analytical differences and similarities concerning (1) purpose and (2) governance mechanism of PBM. The literature could be grouped into three approaches to the study of PBM, which we termed: the ‘functionalist’, the ‘interpretive’ and the ‘post-modern’ perspective. In the functionalist perspective, PBM is perceived as a management tool aimed at improving health care services by means of market-based mechanisms. In the interpretive perspective, the adoption of PBM is understood as consequence of institutional and individual agents striving for public legitimacy. In the post-modern perspective, PBM is analysed as a form of governance, which has become so ingrained in Western culture that health care professionals internalize and understand their own behaviour and goals according to the values expressed in these governance systems. The recognition of differences in analytical perspectives allows appreciation of otherwise implicit assumptions and potential implications of PBM. Reflections on such differences are important to ensure vigilant appropriation of shifting management tools in health quality governance.