How to “bell” the employee performance curve

Over the past decade or so, I have been fortunate to be a part of some intense employee performance evaluation discussions. It was fascinating to watch supervisors’ lock horns with each other in gladiatorial like contests to grab the biggest slices for their employees. At the same time, enormous effort and time was being expended to make the discussion as wide ranging as possible and to bring in the inputs of a large number of stakeholders and ultimately aim for a process that would be as objective as possible. Now this was a lofty aim because by its very nature, performance evaluation is always subjective.

The end result was always a mix of debatable decisions, bruised egos, compromises and half-baked measures. Actually let me not describe it so gloomily. All of us would grudgingly accept most of the evaluations as fair. What was a little indigestible would be that these would not be in alignment with our own plans for our teams when we went into the huddle.

On my part, I always measured the outcome against what I had set up as a best case scenario. Among this, I always divided my expectations from this exercise for my team into typically three categories- the non-negotiable, the desirable and the completely expendable cases. As is obvious, my own barometer of success would be very intense for the first category and then would progressively dilute for the next and then the last.

As a people manager, I have often struggled with this onerous responsibility to discriminate among my employees. I have also felt defeated and very disappointed when I couldn’t get the result and the associated reward I wanted for my people. At that point, sometimes the whole process seems so unfair. Why can’t we all subscribe to a higher common good and divide up the spoils equally among everybody?

Here, some recent literature talking about the tyranny of the bell curve and about how organizational success is always driven by teams rather than individuals felt like a warm blanket. There is a large body of research that seems to suggest that employee performance should not be seen as a normal bell curve  at all. This strengthened my belief in the utopian, community version of performance assessment.

Performance bell Curve

But then, is that the answer? Hasn’t history taught us otherwise? Far greater minds than myself have been convinced about the one for all & all for one approach and had gone ahead and set up entire societies and nations around this concept, only to see it crumble. The fact of the matter is that there is a fundamental inevitability to what Charles Darwin observed so long ago. The fittest will always fare better at the expense of their weaker peers. Maybe that is also the reason Laissez- Faire has outlasted every other model so far.

So, getting back to our situation, what is the most optimal employee performance framework? Is the dreaded bell curve a curse to teamwork and employee morale? Do we then evaluate teams as a whole rather than individuals?

My humble submission is that we don’t.

The very idea of employee performance evaluation is to make an honest, fair assessment of the INDIVIDUAL. Therefore, it is imperative that we distill out the contribution and capabilities of the individual employee beyond the multiple layers of organizations, teams, constraints, external influences, pure dumb luck etc. This is usually achieved by engaging in a very wide ranging discussion after bringing in inputs of every conceivable stakeholder. At its very core, the assessment needs to be definitive about the individual, however subjective it may be. We owe it to them.

However, there should be no upfront assumptions about the proportions of the good, bad and the ugly. We should not force fit performance into any expected distributions. These should emerge as the end result of a grounds up process, where the employee is evaluated purely against the expectations that the organization has from them.

This yardstick is valid for everybody because every individual is different and they usually come into the organizations with those differences. This is usually a result of deliberate strategy to bring in the necessary diversity in skills, maturity levels, experiences and perspectives that are so essential for the company to meet its challenges effectively. Therefore, then pitting all of the employees up against each other defeats this purpose. Their race has to be solely against themselves.

This approach will also not clash against teamwork, will not lead to unnecessary bruising competition and will ensure fairness in the sense that everybody’s evaluation will be unique.

Yes, it’s time to end the tyranny of the bell curve. Its best done by looking at every employee as a unique and not as a herd. It’s like Noah’s Ark, with only one member of each species.

The author, Karthikeyan Damodaran, is a Consulting Services Delivery Leader at BRIDGEi2i – a company on a mission to unleash the power of analytics and transform the lives of enterprises and individuals alike. We believe that the solutions to almost all intractable problems lies in our ability to mine & contextualize data. We want to help organizations prepare for adversity of all types by embracing data driven calculated risk taking, as a way of life. To know more visit www.bridgei2i.com .

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position or viewpoint of BRIDGEi2i.

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