A recent journal article called into question whether performance really does look like a bell curve. You know, the distribution of anything that is flat towards the ends and fat in the middle. I have some quibbles with the article, particularly whether we would expect the samples of performance they looked at (professional athletes, Grammy winning singers, etc.) should be distributed like this. But, they bring up a good point: Should we expect performance to follow a bell curve? From an HR perspective, I think the more important issue is how we make the curve look like the distributions in the article.
To the first question, I believe that the bell curve is more likely for entry level jobs than others. In other words, if you are hiring people for call center or retail positions, randomly hired applicants (something I would never recommend doing), didn’t fire anyone, and then looked at their performance at some later time, you would probably see a bell curve on speed of call handling, customer satisfaction, etc. This is because there hasn’t been much selection in choosing to apply for the job or in choosing who got it.
As jobs become more specialized and difficult, more self-selection occurs. The number of people who want to be managers or technicians is smaller than for the entry level jobs. Also, by this time people start getting feedback about their skills which also helps them self select. This doesn’t eliminate all poor performers, but it does push the curve to the right and leads to a much smaller poor performance tail.
In the articles examples, we shouldn’t expect there to be a normal distribution of baseball statistics. Why? Because there is a rigorous selection process that takes place which starts in grade school. Only the best of the best make into professional baseball, let alone the major leagues. While there are differences in performance, there is also less variance in performance, which skews the distributions cited in the article.
But it isn’t just selection that does this. Baseball players get a lot of training. There are coaches that work with them on how they hit, catch, throw, and run. This, along with physical training, a monitored diet, etc. allow them to reach their highest physical potential. Effective training raises the talent level which against pushes our bell curve.
Lastly, baseball is a game of numbers. Your manager (and the world) constantly knows what your performance level is (and that of the guy who wants to take your job). This constant, and objective, performance feedback also motivates and pushes the players to do their best. Again, it forces them to be high performers because low performers (left side of the curve) are not tolerated and are removed from the major leagues.
What are you doing to ensure that performance in your organization isn’t following a bell curve?
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