The Bell Curve

Any person with experience or interest in performance management would have experience, interest & thoughts on this fantastic phenomenon called Bell Curve. I call it fantastic because a bell curve is the perfect analogy of a bitter sweet pill or the two faces of a coin or any other compelling contrasts that exist in life.

I have had the opportunity of drawing a bell curve multiple times. Usually, it’s a mixed bag of emotion, but enriching in terms of the experience – the journey more arduous than the result.

So in the younger days, I would question a Bell Curve, why does one need to be rated/ slated/ slotted. Why should two performers be compared & levelled up or down? Is it not cruel to rate two people who have different targets? And is it all objective? Does it serve the organization if we slot performers? And if the slotting is incorrect, then don’t we run the risk of losing someone who has been a good performer?

The answers to all questions lie in a simple statement – Greater Good Of All. I tend to associate this with spiritualism but guess that is how I can understand it.

Increasing competition (one word for all words, phrases, sentences to explain our professional lives) demands clear & robust segregation of performers into various categories. These categories form the basis for the allocation of all organizational resources – physical & intellectual. The ones who deserve the most get the maximum. Categorization also helps in ascertaining the critical workforce & planning their escalation & bench strength. The bottom performers realise (by design or structure) that they do not belong to this clan. Overall, the organization experiences a collaborative surge in its abilities. Visualise this as a batch of 40 pilgrims moving from one line to another in a temple queue.

n a recent education on bell curves, two focus points came to light – the context in which the curve would stand & its rigidity.

A perfect curve always stands true to the context of the times that it is being drawn in. The context indicates directions & these have to be used to shape up the curve & draw relevant comparisons. As we get deeper these comparisons make it easy for the Managers to plan their talent.

Rigidity – I’d like to quote an example someone used sometimes back to explain to me the philosophy of the bell curve. The Olympics Games is the most prestigious sporting event in the world. Top athletes from multiple countries compete for glory. These athletes are the best from each country & are the outcome of a rigorous selection & practice cum performance schedule. At the games, they are the best their countries could send.

Still, when the game event takes place, the result is a sequence of performances – 1st to Last. Best of the Best; Survival of The Fittest?? Take your pick.

There are many criticisms of this concept of marking performance. Making curves in a small workgroup may be looking not so intelligent. Individuals are not free of biases & sometimes they may creep in while making a curve. The rigidity beyond a point seems ridiculous. After all, how much of a difference would one number make – up or down (usually is up). It’s heartless, harsh & difficult to execute especially when the effort of a whole year is being assessed. Context may be understood simply as the business projection for the next year thus negating longevity.

These are my thoughts & my thoughts drawn from my interactions with folks who I call friends. They draw no inference/ references from/ with the organizations that I have been/ am associated with.  

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