Max Walker
Exploring project management in small or informal project environments.

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The views expressed on this website/weblog are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.

How do you motivate staff in a bell-curve environment?

I love doing quarterly and annual performance reviews. That might sound sarcastic when you read it in print, but it’s true. It’s one of my favorite things about managing people. I really enjoy reviewing successes and deliverables. I enjoy the conversations that confirm or adjust priorities and focus. Sitting down to visit with my people 1:1 is very rewarding.

Most managers work within some kind of performance review structure. From what I can tell, most of us work within an appraisal structure that imposes a bell curve for performance ratings.

Bell curves, or a normal distribution, make a lot of sense in the world. They occur naturally in large populations in the natural world. I remember studying this in school, and found that observation very interesting. So, it makes sense that one would ask managers to apply such a standard. If you accept that a bell curve distribution occurs naturally, then one must accept that a manager’s tendency to rate his team members too highly and to end up with a ratings distribution that’s too heavy on the upper end is unnatural. So, you impose a bell curve standard to encourage more correct ratings.

There is also research that talks about the negative impacts of imposing bell curve distributions too strictly in populations that are too small and in populations where you’ve already done some pruning or culling — workforce reductions — over time. In other words, if you’ve done your job as a management team over time, you’ve probably improved the skill set of your staff people, improved their productivity, improved their dedication and motivation, and “managed out” non- and under-performers. You’re left with a finely tuned, well-performing team.

Does a bell curve fit that population? Researchers seem to be divided (surprise!) about that.

Regardless of the research, you probably still are required to impose the bell curve. And that probably means that you end up under-rating some employees.

I found such a model morally offensive when I was a university student, and I find it so now.

But that’s irrelevant.

I manage employees within a larger organization and I have certain requirements imp0sed on me by the the performance management models of my organization. It’s my job and responsibility, both literally and ethically, to do that as well as I can and ans sincerely as I can.

So rather than spinning wheels whining about the model, the effective manager’s focus needs to be on how to apply that model properly and still maintain staffing motivation and commitment among that well-performing organization. After all, they’re not idiots, and they know the model, too.

So what are your ideas on how to do that?

I tend to do things very transparently. The organization has shared the model and its distribution guidelines with all staff; HR did that. So I focus on the employee’s own successes, how well they’ve met objectives, the impact of those objectives and deliverables to the organization. I talk about professional competencies (part of the model) and where has been growth, where there are strengths, and where there is room to improve. I express my sincere and heart-felt appreciation for their contributions both personally and professionally to the team and the organization. I talk about the model and its constraints, and the resulting comparative nature of the ratings. I’m open about my own feelings about the weakness of the model, but the realities of the environment in which we work — and I help them understand how widely this model is used. Then we talk through rating, if the employee has any angst about that.

How do you do that? What ideas can you provide?

2 comments to How do you motivate staff in a bell-curve environment?

  • Bob Oedeleom

    As is typical, management looks for an easy way to “drive” peformance without looking at reality. What seems logical on paper, does not work in the real world.


    Max Reply:

    @Bob Oedeleom, thanks for commenting. Sounds like you’ve lived some of the same things….


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