What happened to the Bell Curve?

The world isn’t flat, and you won’t catch a cold if you leave the house with wet hair (and I leave the house numerous occasions with wet hair!), and business performance does not follow the Bell Curve.

This commonly used statistical tool and recognised performance management strategy has been proven to be a myth, and is in fact detrimental to employee success and satisfaction.

The Bell Curve is supposed to represent a ‘normal distribution’ where the model assumes we have an equal distribution of people above and below average, an easily identified median right in the middle, and a small number of very high performers and an equal amount of very poor performers, with the graph of these numbers forming the shape of a bell hence the name.

Does the world really work this way? Whilst this theory was well accepted for years, when we use our common sense, it is obvious that people, and therefore employees and their performance, aren’t as simple as that.

Ernest O’Boyle Jr. and Herman Aguinis conducted research in 2011and 2012 in a large sample (633,263 including researchers, entertainers, politicians, and athletes) and identified that 94 percent of these groups did not follow a normal distribution. Rather these groups fall into a Power Law distribution also known as a ‘long tail’ for its shape. People are not ‘normally distributed’ and are in fact distributed far wider in their performance, and the concept of average is debunked.

The very worst assumption in the bell curve model is that the number of ‘hyper performers’ are limited to very few and the majority of people hang out in the middle 80% segment feeling satisfied and unmotivated to ever achieve anything more than a satisfactory result.

Why create a system where performance has a limit and once the top spots are filled, we have nothing to strive for? It actually removes the incentive for people to work to their potential, and frustrates people in their performance appraisals leading to dissatisfaction and the loss of great employees.

If you are performing well but can’t be recognised as the top spots are already ‘filled’ you feel under-appreciated, receive less salary bonus or award and you are less likely to collaborate or support your team members. You are, in fact, all competing and it’s against your own best interests to do so. The worst case scenario for your current employer is not that you work to 80%, but that you move onto another company where you can reach the top of the performance curve and receive the recognition you desire and deserve.

Constant improvement and development of our biggest resource, our people, is a far more motivating and fair strategy in assessing and appraisal of the workforce. We can all be ‘hyper performers’ in the right role and with the best of circumstances and why would we want to limit or discourage achievement?

There goes the Bell curve.

Phone 1300 719 665  www.soniamcdonald.com.au

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