To bell curve or not to?

Curves could be in but I prefer being straight.†

Want to stay ahead of the curve…Easy….Eliminate the Curve itself!

Think bell, think rank and yank!

Not many would have grasped the context and significance of these lines above. I am one of them, for starters. 🙂

I am talking about the infamous bell curve – which has and will be the center of attention for centuries to come, unless we all do something about this or the world comes to an end (whichever happens first).

Even today, this is probably the only tool in existence which humans have understood less and deployed more (am talking about the specific usage in performance & compensation management).

Unfortunately, we are blatantly misconstruing a great statistical model and applying it on ourselves.

Have we ever really thought about what it means when we say “WE humans (performance / competency / behavior pattern) fall under a curve” or rather a normal distribution?

If this were so simple, then there are scores of possibilities that arise, in terms of application:

a) criminal science – imagine what this would be like if all of us could be categorized into potential criminals, criminals and master minds! This model could really help save the world / humanity.

b) sports – we will have a statistical model for selecting poor players, average players and super stars – and you would go ahead and yank such that you finally end up with a very potent team of superstars only – will this help you win the game? Ahem, think again.

c) and yes the stock exchange – we would finally have found a way to identify sinking, steady and super stocks / companies, by virtue of this model. Who says this can’t be done? When we can do this on and for humans – companies should be a lot easier.

Coming back to the topic, this curve essentially typecasts people into average (normal), below average (poor) and above average (brilliant / superstars) – based on certain criteria.

Yes, that’s what it is – Average. Usually 60-85% of your overall workforce will be banded average and below average, does this even sound right?

How did we ever fall for this one?

For one –

Human behavior / performance cannot be typecasted.

Secondly, this model has a inherent tendency to let:

a) The average performers (the middle band) usually remain average. If there are any super performers in this grade, which usually happens due to the pressures of keeping the performance normally distributed, then they will obviously try and get out – of this band the team, and maybe even organization.

This zone then becomes the safety and comfort zone for the majority, and can have a dampening effect on innovation, and the wanting to perform better.

b) High performers can lose interest once they see that they have no more “levels” to achieve.

c) This model can allow unhealthy competition and a lack of collaboration within the team as the individuals compete for better ratings among themselves

There is a growing awareness on this aspect and large companies (Microsoft for example) are moving away from this model. Hopefully this will enlighten a lot of us and others.

While I may not possess the intelligence to say if this does not work what else will, I do hope that common sense will prevail at the end.

In closing, a years’ work is translated into an alphabet (or a number) and it is high time we pay better attention to re-designing this process – considering the fact that it is we humans, who are a part of this and not some plain statistic. (The term Human Resource itself may need to be re-branded and I will probably take this up in a future article±)!

“who” will “bell” the cat!° 😄

†Quote courtesy: Kartik R, a colleague and friend

±I have written another article on rebranding HR and this can be found here: HR re-branding

°Quote courtesy: Prashanth Rao, my colleague and friend


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.