When it comes to assessing the performance of individuals in organizations, it seems incredible that there are still a few HR professionals who believe that requiring managers to force-fit their people into a normal distribution (bell curve) represents high quality people management. And, to compound the offence, some still appear to view Jack Welch’s forced ranking approach (sometimes called "rank and yank") as the height of performance management practice.
With this in mind, a client manager once speculated on what might happen if he were to go into the local town and randomly select 100 people to work in the company. In such circumstances, he conceded that their comparative performance one year on might well be normally distributed. But that is not what he – or anyone else – actually does in practice!
So what if, after all this investment in mainstream HR practices, managers did indeed find that the comparative performance of their staff fitted the pattern of a normal distribution curve, and that the performance of a significant percentage of people (typically 10% according to the Welch ‘formula’) merited their removal? Perhaps the head of HR should view this as more of a commentary on his or her own performance than on that of those being so crudely assessed.
NOTE: I’ve referred here to the ludicrousness of this specific approach to the appraisal and management of people performance. However, the issue goes much deeper than this. Not least, the approach is rooted in assumptions about the nature of organization and management that fail to take account of the complex social dynamics of everyday human interaction. It’s through this ongoing process that organization is enacted and results are achieved in practice. This is a process in which people’s individual and collective performance is both enabled and constrained by the actions, inactions, and interactions of everyone else involved – not least those of their line managers. So, if managers are to take seriously these real-world dynamics of organization, they need to begin by embracing a totally different – and more enlightened - conception of what it means to “manage performance”.