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  • Writer's pictureSubha

Performance Traps And Bell Curves

Updated: Mar 19

performance trap

​Why do so many institutions and organizations love the bell curve so much? Because, as human beings, we like to compare. It is also perhaps an easy out that seemingly benefits the entire system. Why not just create ‘healthy’ competition? Why not just decide ‘who is better’ rather than deep dive into ‘are they at their best’? There must be a better way to run performance reviews…


When it comes to performance appraisals, we need a benchmark against which we can evaluate the performance of every employee. Curiously enough, we set the bar to match with the performance of everyone else on the team. Even in organisations that take special care to ensure that peer-to-peer comparison does not happen, a significant amount of it creeps in by virtue of the fact, again, that we are human. So, what are the specific actions that organisations can take to include a sense of fairness in performance appraisals so that employees treat them as the review and course-correction opportunities they are, and not a battle of egos amongst team members?

  1. Employees consider a comparison with their own past performance to be a fairer evaluation of their progress than comparison to their peers. Create an individual bell curve if you must!

  2. When an employee is new to the organisation, they expect an evaluation based solely on the job description provided to them, and not in tandem with other people in the same grade.

  3. By comparing to their own, individual performance over time, managers have the opportunity to provide a personal, customised feedback system that each employee can incorporate and work on with positive intent.

  4. Interestingly, employees who receive positive feedback when compared to their peers also report a degree of dissatisfaction, because their personal strengths and specific contributions don’t always shine.

  5. Indeed, more and more companies are beginning to realise that a race to the top isn’t exactly a race for the individual teams. So, while sales teams perform very well, R&D is allowed time for fine-tuning.

  6. Over time, such individual feedback for each employee and putting them on their trajectory allows organisations to leverage their specific skills that may not have seen the light of day under assembly-line circumstances.

What’s more, if you have negative feedback for an employee, there is no better review than one that looks at their past performance and puts them on a curve based on that. It gives both the employee and their manager a fresh perspective on their individual growth. Organizations may wonder if evaluating each team member on their past parameters serves the purpose when the organisation itself is moving at a breakneck pace. However, this conundrum can be easily addressed by remembering that the hiring process itself is meant to hire only those people who align with the organisation’s goals in the first place. If that is not the case, it is possible that the hiring process is flawed and needs to be fixed, or that the organisation’s vision and goals are changing rapidly and these changes are not effectively communicated to the employees. In short, if your employees have all the information and resources they need to perform well, the appraisal process is simply a question of whether the employee has performed well or not, all other conditions remaining constant.

How does your firm look at performance reviews? What do you find works really well for you? We would love to know!


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