Blog: RIP – The Bell Curve

Performance Management

RIP – The Bell Curve

The bell curve process comes in with its own shortcomings with smaller teams
RIP – The Bell Curve

For decades, annual appraisal and assessments were driven by the Bell Curve Methodology. Slotting an organization into layers of top talent, able talent and bottom performers was the most arduous task for any organization that was taking up performance assessments to closure via the bell curve. And then Accenture – the bellwether organization, decided to bury this process. Forever. What this will mean is that several organizations will follow suit and over a period of time the Bell Curve will become, well, a tool that was!

This is indeed good news on several counts.

Firstly, the bell curve, more often than not, is a difficult process to implement in complete fairness. In the name of a continuously improving organization, the bell curve is modeled into slotting a team into layers of top, middle and bottom performers, so what if the manager felt (& knew) that his team comprised all top performers. Therefore, performance has often been sighted as ‘compromised’ in the name of relative ranking.

Secondly, Bell Curve is often not applicable in smaller teams where slotting performance got difficult considering smaller headcount. Therefore, the bell curve process comes in with its own shortcomings with smaller teams.

Thirdly, the bell curve is logistically a mammoth project for large organizations, to complete. The bell curve is linked deeply with several HR initiatives – be it an accelerated program or engagement for top talent as defined by the bell curve or phasing out of bottom performers as highlighted by the curve. Very simply put, an organization with, say 1000 employees will typically have 150-200 top performers and  an equal number of bottom performers. Now to churn an accelerated program for top talent year on year (this 200 will become 400 and so on) will also mean some factual outcomes for the top talent. Therefore organizations need to be in a position to create such outcomes at the same pace at which they identify top talent. Similarly, bottom performers will also constitute around 150-200 employees. To phase off a number as massive as that has its own people related challenges – organization could be perceived as one that ends up firing employees. This is just one of the problems. Whether the organization should hire back fills for the employees being phased out (this is another debate that has 2 distinct and diametrically opposite voices), the messaging going out into the market on account of phase offs, client feedback v/s actual performance, exceptions, billability of identified bottom performers and how the organization justifies revenue loss in the name of improvement, etc – these are all big ticket debates that consume weeks of leadership time.  

Lastly, the bell curve has not resonated as a very positive process with managers. There are several stories and examples of how managers have not taken the performance compartmentalization well in their stride. The bell curve outcome often becomes like a supreme court judgement – you respect it but not necessarily agree with it! There is a tendency for managers to feel their assessments get lost in translation simply because people had to get slotted.  

Several comments on social media were of the assumption that there wouldn’t be any performance assessment going forth, and that the death of the bell curve would mean safe haven for everyone! Well, not exactly. Performance measurement will go through a radical change in its approach. I feel, employee performance in the next few years will be measured on specific time bound outcomes and charters. This may not necessarily result in a formalized process but a constant feedback mechanism on how the employee has fared, say every quarter on tasks that were allocated to him/her during that time. What this will do is get a closer working relationship between manager and their teams. In times like these, where organizations move ahead at a significant speed, working relationships were often compromised and jeopardized thereby taking away the touchpoints at work. With a constant feedback mechanism as an alternative to the bell curve, the most essential elements in any organizational success – people & relationships, will make a grand return!   





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Topics: Performance Management, Performance management systems, #HR Ready

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