Limited Budgets, Unlimited Aspirations . . . . Gives Rise to the Bell Curve . . . .

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One topic that never ceases to excite all, whether it be 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 which is thrust upon on all to act as a great equalizer, while a few see it as a mechanism to settle scores, whatever may the interpretations be, 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.

We need to understand the NEED for the bell curve and how to ROLL IT OUT to break some myths surrounding it. It is critical to build an appreciation for the bell curve as we cannot skip it in the near future for sure.

The top 3 reasons why the bell curve is a part of our lives and will not vanish very soon are . . .

We have limited budgets & unlimited aspirations

Businesses (investors) have limited budgets to share with other stakeholders which includes employees, and hence the people cost cannot be an unreasonable component of any business model. At the same time employees have unlimited aspirations which can often be a result of peer pressure or consumerism rather than a direct result of their performance / contribution.

To balance these diverse compulsive needs we need to build a mechanism which is in the form of a bell curve.

We want to build a high performance work culture

All successful organizations have one common trait, which is that they pamper success and believe in the fact that nothing succeeds like success. To build a culture of success or high performance, it is important and imperative that organizations identify the right role models and protect them. One of the challenges of absolute ranking is that we fail to distinguish be-tween the different classes of performance and thereby encourage building a culture of mediocrity.

Behaviors that get rewarded get repeated, and 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% is what drives the organisations to the Next Orbit. We aren’t negating the contributions of the others, but at the same time we all agree that the other 80% can sustain the organization where it is ‘as is’ but cannot propel it. As human species we are highly aspirational in nature and also very self-aware. It is often found that the high performers are aware of their contributions and want to be recognized for it in some form, if not monetary always. Non recognition of higher contributions results in greater disappointments in those who deserve it rather than in those who don’t.

Surprisingly, it’s true that if you ask high performers, who have previously been mediocre per-formers, whether they are OK with the idea of treating all equally, they would say NO.

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 times the bell curve is drawn and shown to the managers after their appraisal ses-sions 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 in advance the bell curve for their teams before they start their sessions. By doing so we are empowering the managers with all the relevant information and thereby they can set the right expectations at the beginning of their conversations with their team members.

Who says the bell curve can’t be flexible?

One of the common myths is that the bell curve has to be consistent across the industry and the organization.

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.

Tell the world that it is the business which draws the curve

Another common myth which runs among the employees is that the hr folks have some special skills which helps them draw the mystical bell curve.

In reality it is the business which draws the bell curve based on the commitments it has made to the investors, it is the business in form of its managers who drive the normalization process, it is the managers who define which employee falls in which category and so on. HR is just a facilitator for this process and shares the same with one and all.

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 without any hesitation and be prepared to broach the proceedings of the normalization meetings transparently.

It is absolutely a must that all these meetings are co-hosted by HR and the manager of the employees, with the proceeding of the same being published for future references. We need to start believing that we are adults who can handle difficult and uncomfortable conversations.

Explore beyond the bell curve ratings to appreciate employees

One of the challenges we face today is that, in many organizations complete growth in terms of promotions or increments / hikes is attached to performance rating only and which creates an environment of the winner of bell curve takes it all and the loser has to fall.

We need to explore ideas where in the ratings obtained from the bell curve are not the sole criteria but play a predominant role, and other components like contributions beyond call of duty, the enhancement in the skill matrix, the flexibility of employee etc. can be explored to arrive at the final rating for release of increments or for consideration of promotions etc.

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


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