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  • Writer's pictureMark Olivito

The Brutal Reality of the Bell Curve

I accept some bedrock principles as “universal truths.” It keeps things simple and they are timeless, whether dealing with Old School or New School philosophies for getting things done. I’ve talked about a few on Hustle Or Bust, and below are the links.

Here’s another one, a similar concept to the 80/20 rule:

People, and their performance almost always fall into a bell curve type distribution…

  • The far right, “top 20%” of performers

  • The vast majority “big middle” which is the bulk of the population, about 70%

  • The bottom 10% of the curve

Many theories exist WHY this distribution almost always holds. Some will say natural intelligence (IQ), Emotional Intelligence (EQ), work ethic, intangibles, etc.

I don’t try and analyze why, I accept that there are simply all sorts of capabilities among people, and there is a wide range between the elite and the non-performers: The “extremes” of the curve. And simply put, the vast majority are NOT in the elite or non-performer tail ends. That by definition is why they are in the middle, or the “average.” A blend of the 2 tails if you will.

If you accept the theory that your organization will take the shape of a bell curve as it relates to performance, than you have a management strategy for each segment right?

Easier said than done, but simply put, a “one size fits all” is not the right strategy when results and capabilities vary tremendously. The below questions all assume that they are a cultural fit and their values match that of the organization. If the answer to that is NO, the choice for development is usually cut or dry. Values miss-matches should not be invested in.

Top 20%
  • Think of the 80/20 concept: A relatively small % of people that generate the overwhelming majority of productivity and results. That’s this end of the curve. Keeping this group engaged, motivated and stretched is job #1. They usually have no ceiling or can’t be challenged too much. The challenge with this group is usually reining them in at times vs. cracking the whip.

    • How would you be doing if they left you? What if they went to your competitors? Are you 99% confident they are on board? This group is vulnerable to leaving as organizations are always on the lookout for top performers currently producing.

    • Are they in the inner circle of decision making? If not, why?

    • Do they have a great relationship with their direct manager? Studies show this is the number one cause for retention (or departure), contrary to conventional wisdom of $’s.

    • Are you getting them ready for bigger challenges? If bigger challenges are not a motivator, do they want more flexibility? You need to know what makes their retention MORE secure, not less. Don’t assume, ask them.

Bottom 10%
  • This group is the opposite of the top performers. They have the potential to create “baggage” to the organization if not managed to meet clear expectations consistently. Some companies, like GE in the Jack Welch days believed this group needed to be managed OUT of the organization every year, and even had a forced bell curve ranking to identify this segment of the work force. Agree or disagree, this group is challenging to every organization. Speed is of the essence with this group, determining IF they can make it to average performance.

    • Do they have clear expectations, results expectations, on paper?

    • Do you have managerial “check-points” for them to achieve them?

    • Are you carrying them, creating baggage, or do you have a plan to say goodbye?

    • At some point, you need a very defined plan, which I write about in Saying Goodbye

The Vast Majority 70%
  • The middle. This is where the bulk of the people lie. I believe that many in this group have a real shot to elevate their game and join the elite, just as a few can fall into the bottom non-performance.

    • See above on expectations & check points. Not as critical as with the bottom 20%, but important.

    • Are they collecting a pay check or are they hungry to be there and make a difference? This may indicate if they will fall or leap

    • Do they have solid mentors in place?

    • Are they setting stretch goals to spur performance?

    • Are you celebrating achievements equally as often as your top 10%? Look for reasons to celebrate winning.

Life is made up of all walks of life. People often say “variety is the spice of life” which I agree with.

In business, competition is fierce and great results are not an entitlement.

Variation is not simply a pleasant reality that can be acknowledged. Business is a contact sport. It starts with people, and your bell curve needs to be managed.

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