Quality circles (QCs) are commonly used in primary health care in Europe to consider and improve standard practice over time. They represent a complex social intervention that occurs within the fast-changing system of primary health care. Numerous controlled trials, reviews, and studies have shown small but unpredictable positive effect sizes on behavior change. Although QCs seem to be effective, stakeholders have difficulty understanding how the results are achieved and in generalizing the results with confidence. They also lack understanding of the active components of QCs which result in changes in the behavior of health care professionals. This protocol for a realist synthesis will examine how configurations of components and the contextual features of QCs influence their performance. Stakeholder interviews and a scoping search revealed the processes of QCs and helped to describe their core components and underlying theories. After clarifying their historical and geographical distribution, a purposive and systematic search was developed to identify relevant papers to answer the research questions, which are: understanding why, how, and when QCs work, over what time frame, and in what circumstances. After selecting and abstracting appropriate data, configurations of contexts and mechanisms which influence the outcome of QCs within each study will be identified. Studies will be grouped by similar propositional statements in order to identify patterns and validation from stakeholders sought. Finally, theories will be explored in order to explain these patterns and to help stakeholders maintain and improve QC performance. Analyzing context-mechanism-outcome (CMO) patterns will reveal how QCs work and how contextual factors interact to influence their outcome. The aim is to investigate unique configurations that enable them to improve the performance of health care professionals. Using a standardized reporting system, this realist review will allow the research questions to be answered to the satisfaction of key stakeholders and enable on-going critical examination and dissemination of the findings. PROSPERO registration number: CRD42013004826.