The Bell Curve – Great Tool for Things, Terrible Tool for People

Bell curves are terrific tools in the right application – for example, in statistical analysis and quality management.

But as so often happens in leadership and life, a wonderful tool for managing things can turn ugly when we apply it to people.  People aren’t things.  They don’t respond in a linear, cause-and-effect way, they have passions and emotions, they can even respond negatively to being evaluated with a statistical tool.  Unlike systems, people can fix themselves – they can lose bad attitudes, stop making mistakes, improve performance, offer creativity where none was even expected, grow and mature.

Bell curves build in artificial distinctions between people.  This person is an A (high performer) or a C (low performer) or a B (okey-dokey performer).  There they are, clearly pegged, labelled, categorized.  But an A can become cocky and arrogant and put our organization at great risk.  They can leave for greener pastures.  They can treat other people like inferiors.  A C can have an epiphany if we haven’t beaten them down and cast their C-ness in concrete.  And a B – classified as average, maybe high average, maybe low average – can resent their status.  They can go be an A somewhere else, or stay with us and sink into the abyss of C-ness. 

Entire performance evaluation systems are built around this destructive bell-curve mindset.  As a leader, even if all of your people are operating at an A level, you can only rate a small percentage as an A.  A lot of A’s are called B, with all of the discouragement and anger that this can produce.  A few even have to be called C, which is worse than wrong – it’s stupid.  A high B can legitimately ask, “What can I do to become an A when I’m already doing everything I know how to do?  Low B’s and C’s can legitimately ask, “What’s the point of working here?”

And why on earth would any leader want a Bell-Curve Organization?  Shouldn’t we want as many people as possible operating at an A level?  We’re never going to get everyone there – there will always be the 5% – but one of the most important differences between good and great leaders is the wisdom to know that you can’t achieve top-tier performance with just 10 or 15% of your people operating at an A level, no matter how good they are.

At Luman, we’ve built our courses and assessments around helping leaders break the bell curve mindset and instead go about Building a Passionate Organization.  You can end up with an S-curve skewed to the right – 95% “all in,” 5% needing to move forward or move out.

Jack Welch gave us a lot of outstanding leadership concepts.  The Bell Curve for People?  Not one of them.  If you’ve fallen for it, you can lose it today.  That would not be too soon.

Note: All italicized terms are trademarked property of Luman International.  All rights reserved.

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