I've just listened to the podcast on performance reviews and the discussion mentions employee A vs employee B and how no manager can have all top performers. There was mention of a bell curve and how some people will be lower others higher.

Why can't all employees be high performers?

Are, or should, employees be compared to one another or to their own documented "SMART" goals? It seems hard to compare me to another person on my team since they may have a completely different set of job skills and tasks to accomplish.

I think it is reasonable and realistic to have all high performers in most teams given the variety of skills and tasks each are expected to perform. A sales position may be the exception.

What do you think?

Mark's picture
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This is a topic that is born our of the intersection of three competing processes: evaluating staff, succession planning, and salary administration.

Yes, a team can have all top performers, but in my experience this is is exceptionally rare... EXCEPTIONALLY RARE.

Most employees and managers DRASTICALLY OVERESTIMATE their value.

And, most companies don't like seeing "all top performers" because there's not enough money to reward everyone the top end of the rewards scale.

I think it's reasonable for organizations to spread their employees out on a relative bell curve, and I think it's reasonable for managers and employees to disagree.

Best data wins!


AManagerTool's picture

Thank you Mark,

I have been waiting to hear you comment on the Bell curve for some time now. I was wondering why you were so silent on the subject.

[quote]I think it's reasonable for organizations to spread their employees out on a relative bell curve, and I think it's reasonable for managers and employees to disagree.

Best data wins!

I like the best data wins part. I just presented the "Preparing for your Review ppt" to my team and asked them if they could provide me with the ammunition I need next year to go into these "Calibration meetings" and come out with real and fair ratings for them. I did it this year without the benefits of a full year of such data and got steam rolled by competing managers...and it hurt. You can't argue with documented results, good or bad.

Mark's picture
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"You can't argue with..."

Oh, yes they can, and will.

Anonymous's picture


Ok Mark, I'm about to start arguing!

My manager was asked by his manager, in a pre-appraisal meeting, what he intended giving me as a performance rating, and told her he was going to give me the top grade (1 of 5).

All the managers have been told to reduce the numbers of 1s and 2s because the bell curve is squewed too far the to the right. Therefore, I will now not be getting the top grade. The justification for this being that I havn't worked in this role for a full year.

When I asked my manager what I need to do to get a 1 next year, I was told you have to do work for our VP. I don't think this is fair because

*The rating is not based on performance but proximity
*It implies the work you do for the business is more important than what you do for the customer (which I do sort of agree with, but given the company's definition of people excellence is: highly motivated and high-performing service teams, totally focused – as a group and as individuals – on meeting customer expectations) I can't be totally focused on meeting the customer expectations and on the business at the same time!)

So, now I've ranted I feel better! Please can we have some instructions on how to start the year in order to be able to justify a top rating at the end of the year?



AManagerTool's picture

I just went through the calibration process again this year. I have some complaints as well. I am not complaining for myself but for my staff. They got robbed. I spent the better part of the year compiling data and preparing reviews the MT way. When it was time to submit my ratings I did so expecting that they would be read and argued. They weren't. It was pure horse trading. I believe that it is NOT being done well at my company and have a real suspicion that the same thing holds true at MOST companies.

One thing that really struck me about your situation was the completely unprofessional and irresponsible manner in which YOUR manager delivered the rating to you. Telling you that your rating was adjusted and then NOT standing behind it sucks. He threw the blame on upper management. While I get pissed at the system, I need to support it to my staff. The system is not the problem. The premise is good. The IMPLIMENTATION SUCKS!

Gareth's picture


Why can't all employees be high performers?


Different people have different goals in life and external factors away from work tend to have an impact on their job.

I know a women, 23, and she recently quit her job. She worked in a call center (Team Member) and the reason she gave for leaving was simply she doesn't want the pressure. During her months notice she is unable to be a 'customer facing' member of staff so they have placed her in admin. With a big smile on her face she told me how she was now able to get away with doing next do nothing, working less hours and getting the same pay.

When i asked her about her plans she responded by telling me how she would like a nice easy job with limited responsibilities.

Myself on the other hand, i arrive at work often early and usually one of the last to leave. I've gone out of my way and paid for a college course, met all my targets and then done an extra 30% (the best I was able too).

I work hard in work, try to use all the points I have picked up from MT and ask for more responsibilities.

What I'm trying to say is, i can not understand how someone can sit back and not want a challenge from work.

At the end of the day however..... people just want different things in life.

Mark's picture
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There are so many issues wrapped up in performance rankings, it's hard to address it comprehensively.

And, if you're wanting every corporate system to be "fair" [a horrible standard], you're going to be disappointed. If you want everyone to agree with all of your ratings, you're going to be disappointed.

There are some systems - particularly when they serve different constituencies, that are going to conflict, and it's the managers who are left to deal with it.

The way to get a top ranking is to outperform everyone else in the minds of the key raters who make the decisions. Find out what they want in addition to what your job requires, and then deliver results that others see as superior.

Not easy... but Tiger Woods is not only more gifted, he also practices harder than most everyone else too.

Mark's picture
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One more thing:

Everyone can't be high performers because the usage is comparative as opposed to fixed. That is, if everyone is a high performer, there is no discrimination, and that defeats the purpose of those who combine salary administration and performance reviews.

If you want to compare to some external standard, that's fine... but it won't work for salary adjustments unless the individual ranking system is perfectly linked to corporate profitability and a binding rewards metric/dollar pool. It will never - NEVER - happen.

I'm reminded of the Lake Woebegone line: "where all the children are above average." Yeah, right.


hspohr's picture

Are there guidelines as to when the bell curve should be applied, and to what extent? Do all associates who are measured this way need to be performing the same or very similar duties, so they can be benchmarked appropriately?

tplummer's picture

I think many people get hung up on the bell curve because they want the rating to be like taking a test back in school. Study hard. Do your work. If everyone in the class gets a 100 on the test, everyone gets an A. That's fair. But, this isn't a test. This is real life with real money. No team except in rare cases is everyone 100% productive and all contribute equally. It just doesn't happen.

This is what I tell more junior managers. Any team of size has an average performance. Think of it as a C. C by definition is average. Now maybe, just maybe you have a "super team". Then your average might be raised to a B minus. That's it. You absolutely have people outperforming others in the group. Period.

And, what I think in my head is, if you can't see the spread within your team, then you probably shouldn't be a manager. So think bell curve. Maybe you can shift that hump to the right a little bit. But it's always a bell.

gnattey's picture

Didn't expect this post to go on so long... sorry, hope people find it interesting/useful.
[quote="mahorstman"]...if you're wanting every corporate system to be "fair" [a horrible standard], you're going to be disappointed.[/quote]
Just like the difference in Law between Justice and fairness...
[quote="mahorstman"]The way to get a top ranking is to outperform everyone else in the minds of the key raters who make the decisions. Find out what they want in addition to what your job requires, and then deliver results that others see as superior.[/quote]
This is tough - I work in a Public sector organisation where they hold their perfomance management system up as a pillar of excellence on which the organisations success has been defined for years. The trouble is, the people who write the performance agreements are [i]<>[/i] as they spend a few hours on something that is so important and will be used to judge performance for a whole year. For my team I spend an elapsed week on their agreements and ensuring they understand how their daily actions relate to the annual goals of the organisation. By way of example, how does someone who ansers the telephone contribute to preserving national intellectual property.

I just went through my MidYear review and went in with data, documentation, additional metrics exhibiting positive trends, and the discussion was all "off agreement" and in one case based on the lateness of a document that took my manager 3 months to review... despite followup! you have to ask yourself how important it really was...

I used almost none of the data I collected, and that which I did collect was disputed (OK - I can deal with that). But it was a useful exercise and I used the data in an intrerview to great effect... I think?

[quote="skinny0ne"]...if you can't see the spread within your team, then you probably shouldn't be a manager. So think bell curve. Maybe you can shift that hump to the right a little bit. But it's always a bell.[/quote] agree with your first comment, the second I have real issues with my backgrond in Science. There are many examples of populations were a bell is not 'normal', and in many cases, it is from these populations that breakthroughs regularly occur.

The issue here is our natural tendacy to create a model and then try to compare. Most people have a very limited knowledge of population analysis (not casting aspersions on your ability, just a general observation) and as a result draw powerful conclusions based on limited fact... as managers, to believe in the absolute correctness of prediction is to do so at your peril. the only certainty is that things will change, it is the ability of a manager to detect this early and react accordingly...

... for those who have read Chaos theories, think Lorenz's attractor model, and the reversing waterwheel... [url][/url]

tplummer's picture

Okay, let's now add a dash of office politics into the mix. Let's say you have 10 people. They are all cream of the crop. Hand picked. Best of the best. Got it. Your boss has 100 people under him. Now, in a 100 person org chances are you're going to be relatively bell curved overall. In a 10 person group you may not be. Have you already worked it out with your boss that your group is going to get all 10 "A" ratings this year and the other 9 managers get none? The other 9 managers, do they think they have the "A" team too? So applying science loosely the equation still breaks down. Because, and remember this, ratings and rankings is NOT science. It is psychology, bean counting, money impacts, ego impacts, office politics, and performance management all rolled into one. It is not deterministic. It is not a double blind experiment. It is not purely objective. And certainly not fair. I'm an engineering manager so it took me a while to figure it out. But, these are the reasons that make the job fun and unpredictable!


gnattey's picture

Conceded... and please don't take my post as in any way endorsing scientific management theories - reality rules. However, the method of accomodating this is highly dependant on the size of the organisation... one method I have seen used had the most senior people reviewed last - ie they got to pick at the leftovers of the bonus pool, rather than a fresh carcass - quite effective at correcting the "over valuation of performance" :roll:

I have managed a split team (bipolar) - high and low - no middle - there were only five possible ratings. Is it fair that the poor performers drag down the stars, or that the stars “halo effect” improve the rating of the duds… I do not think either option is too fair.... but what is fairness...

The way I handled it was to request a 'moderation' meeting with my peers and Executive Director to compare assessments. My team was 50 and the Business Unit size was around 200, so it worked well. If you get bigger than that, then certainly the politics come into it, as one BUM will certainly wish to emphasise the relative merits of their shareholder value creation vs. another (after all it affects their ego/performance rating :D ). There is no way that this would have worked across the entire organisation of 3500, and it is at that point that I concede to the vagaries of political favouritism. As a manager of the performing staff, I rated fairly and equitably, and can sleep well – if the ratings need to be adjusted, and monetary bonuses reduced, then it is my job as a manger to see if I can reward in a non-monetary sense, or maximise the value to the staff member of that monetary reward.

Interestingly, we have an unwritten rule in my current organisation that prevents people from moving up, or down more than one rating point per year. Most people in their first year are rated at the lowest level; only after 10 years (the number of levels) at a minimum will someone get to the top level, as the guideline is that the only way to achieve this level is an acknowledgement that this person is ready for promotion...

tplummer's picture

Definitely no hard feelings. I was a bit snippy yesterday! I too have combated the halo effect. In fact, I enforced it for the first 2 years. I mean, Joe is always a 1, right? I finally tried to make Joe a 2 this year because we put him on a backburner assignment to allow him to decompress a bit (he was overworked and tired). Of course that wasn't taken into consideration by the other managers because...Joe is always a 1! Oh well. I got an extra 1 out of the deal :?

gnattey's picture

Hi SkinnyOne, we all have days like that - no hard feelings here either. Nice result for your chap during the decmpression period - only wish it was me :wink: I need a holiday :)