At the end of each performance management cycle, a particular employer would review employees in similar positions as a group. All the employees’ respective managers were part of the decision-making process. Each manager would make the case for their recommended rating for each of their employees.
The company policy was to forcibly distribute each group of employees into three categories: Highly Performing (Top 25%), Performing (Middle 50%) and Not Performing (Bottom 25%). In a group of 10, the distribution for Top:Middle:Bottom would be 1:8:1. My coaching client had been rated in the bottom quartile in the most recent review, just before I began working with him. He was an Associate (with Team Lead responsibilities) and received an annual rating in the lower quartile (25%) within his work group, defining him as the lowest performer.
As we worked together, we reviewed his annual performance review and sought input from his immediate supervisor on areas of improvement. He worked hard that year and tried to make some adjustments. He learned and grew. It became apparent that what he contributed was “just a job” to him and that his engagement and productivity would remain low. We discussed this. We discussed how it would be perceived and we discussed while the company’s review system was in place, he would need to shine brighter than his peers.
He made some efforts, but it was not enough to make a difference. In a forced distribution performance appraisal system, one’s performance is being reviewed in comparison to that of others. Even though he made some progress in the second year, so did everyone else. When ranked at the end of Year Two, he was doomed to still hold his spot in the lowest quartile. Others had grown and improved and perhaps with greater success than he. Had someone not delivered as much, he might have crept ahead but in the end, he did not. Worse, he had great difficulty understanding that in this system, even though you make progress, if others do as well, you may still be at the back of the pack. He ended up losing his job and went on to his next chapter. (Share your reaction to this blog entry and I’ll tell you what happened next.)