The bottom of the bell curve

It’s dark down there at the bottom of the bell curve, probably due to a complete absence of stars. It’s where people go to underperform and make your life harder.

There’s nothing practical in this post. It’s about the performance bell curve and how we think about its beguiling shape.

It’s about the bottom. The end. The tale of the tail.

The lazy, the misfits, the person who punched someone at the Christmas party and, finally, Steve who doesn’t seem to do any work (but you know it would cause a fuss if you sacked him). They sit at the bottom of that bell curve. They are pretty much rotting there. It’s where they belong.

The chances of them working way out of the bottom are limited – as a certain amount of people need to be at the bottom and they are an easy target. They were there last year, so it’s a quick conversation and a nod around the room and we’ve met our goal to ‘effectively differentiate performance’ .
Nobody looks to the bottom of the bell curve for inspiration. Hardly anyone looks at the bottom and thinks ‘Is it our hiring? Training? Support? Leadership? What are are we getting wrong here?’

Because once you assume somebody has to be at the bottom – then you stop being accountable. It’s all about why they couldn’t do better, not about how you could do better. Your role is just dealing with that underperformance now it has happened.

And as you’ve read this you think ‘this is unfair, Susan was pretty poor in 2011 and now is a top performer’.

So it can be done, so go do it, because otherwise your talent management strategy needs to be described like this

High potentials – invest in their skills for the future
Potentially high potentials – let them find their own way out of it

And that isn’t a pretty strategy.

And you may say that it costs too much across the board, but then I bet underperformance is pretty costly too?

12 thoughts on “The bottom of the bell curve

  1. Why “normalise” a distribution rather than see clearly the distribution you actually have? Why judge and pigeon hole people based on their perceived performance in a single period of time? Why not encourage such questioning & dialogue in management/leadership development programmes?

    Too much artificial complexity getting in the way of the real questions and the real challenges…


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