Article: How to bell the bell curve!

Performance Management

How to bell the bell curve!

It is the most misunderstood and abused concept across all known management concepts
How to bell the bell curve!

Ideally, managers should be shown the bell curve for their teams in advance before they start their performance appraisals


One topic that never ceases to excite all—be it the HR professionals, the line managers, the finance team or the senior management—is the bell curve. Some of them see it as an unnecessary evil, which cannot be avoided. Others see it as an evil that is thrust upon all to act as a great equalizer, while a few see it as a mechanism to settle scores. Whatever the interpretations are, one thing is for sure – it is the most misunderstood and abused concept, probably not just in HR circles, but across all known management concepts.

The top 3 reasons why the bell curve is inevitable are:

Limited budgets & unlimited aspirations: Businesses have limited budgets for employees and at the same time employees have unlimited aspirations resulting from peer pressure or consumerism rather than from performance. To balance these diverse compulsive needs, we need a mechanism in the form of a bell curve.

The need for a high performance work culture: To build a culture of success or high performance, it is imperative that organizations identify the right role models and protect them. Absolute ranking fails to distinguish between the different classes of performance and encourages building a culture of mediocrity. The inability to identify high performers and create role models does not encourage fence sitters to strive for more.

High Performers don’t appreciate depreciation: We would all agree that the contributions of the top 20 per cent drives the organizations to the Next Orbit, while the other 80 per cent can sustain the organization where it is ‘as is’ but cannot propel it. The high performers want to be recognized for their contributions in some form, if not monetary always. Non-recognition of higher contributions results in greater disappointments.

Some secrets that will help in easing the discomfort around the bell curve are:

Bell the bell curve before the appraisals roll out

Many a time the bell curve is drawn and shown to the managers after their appraisal sessions and ratings are done, which in turn forces the manager to rework their ratings and feedback thereby leading to an embarrassing situation of going back on their word leading to a loss of face.

It would be ideal if the managers are shown the bell curve for their teams in advance before they start their sessions. By doing so, we are empowering the managers with relevant information and help them to set the right expectations.

Who says the bell curve can’t be flexible?

Based on how the organization has done vis-a-vis what it has promised to its investors or vis-a-vis their competitors, the organization may choose to have a liberal or non-liberal bell curve to appreciate/not appreciate the contributions of its employees. In the same fashion within the organization, each of the functions / geographies / domains can have a flexible bell curve based on their contributions, without jeopardizing the organizational level bell curve.

Be open for a conversation

Post normalizations when employees have doubts or grievances as to why the ratings have changed, HR should be open for a dialogue unhesitatingly and be prepared to broach the proceedings of the normalization meetings transparently.

In short, there is no guide which makes the bell curve fool proof. It is critical for us to understand that we cannot kill the messenger because the message isn’t comforting to the majority (80%) of employees. We need to accept that it is an uncomfortable truth, till the time we have limited budgets and unlimited aspirations.

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Topics: Performance Management, #HRMetrics

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