Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 42;   October 16, 2019:

Performance Mismanagement Systems: II

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One of the more counter-effective strategies incorporated into performance management systems is the enterprise-wide uniform quota, known as a vitality curve. Its fundamental injustice breeds cynicism, performance fraud, and toxic conflict. It produces performance assessments that are unrelated to enterprise objectives.
The 20-70-10 rule, graphically

The 20-70-10 rule, graphically. The main problem with this scheme for appraising performance is that it doesn't actually appraise performance. It does categorize people, but that isn't what the enterprise really needs. The enterprise needs performance appraisal — of the enterprise.

We continue with our exploration of some of the foundational misconceptions underlying performance appraisal as it's widely practiced. Last time we sketched how a rhetorical fallacy known as the fallacy of composition, which lies at the heart of performance appraisal strategy, prevents performance management systems from attaining their stated goals. We also examined the reification error, and what I called the "myth of identifiable contributions" and the "myth of omniscient supervision."

Let's now take a look at the effects of uniform quotas. In some organizations, as part of the annual review process, supervisors receive quotas for each grade of performance appraisal — a so-called "vitality curve." For example, one quota system, known as the 20-70-10 rule, recommends quotas of 20% for Exceeds Expectations, 70% for Meets Expectations, and 10% for Needs Improvement. When a rule such as this is applied uniformly to all organizational units, madness results.

The problems with uniform quotas are many. Here are just four of them.

The heterogeneity of capability
Typically, there is little uniformity of capability across all organizational units. Most units have a mix of people performing at various levels, but some units consist almost exclusively of top performers, while others consist almost exclusively of mediocre performers. The system of uniform quotas compels a supervisor of mostly top performers to rate 10% of his or her supervisees as "Needs Improvement." And the system also compels a supervisor of mostly mediocre performers to rate 20% of them as "Exceeds Expectations."
Because of the quota, someone who is a top performer relative to the entire organization might be rated as "Needs Improvement" relative to the group of which he or she is a member. And a performer who is actually in the "Meets Expectations" group relative to the entire organization might be rated as "Exceeds Expectations" relative to the group of which he or she is a member.
Consequently, in some cases, relative to the organization as a whole, a top performer might be rated lower than a mediocre performer. The obvious injustice of this result can contribute to cynicism, toxic conflict, and elevated voluntary termination rates.
The heterogeneity of the need for capability
Most enterprises don't need top performers in every role. To recruit and retain top performers when they aren't needed constitutes a waste of enterprise resources. Moreover, top performers need challenges and opportunities to demonstrate creativity. In some roles in some organizations, those desires are positively unhelpful. In some roles, the enterprise needs only reliable, routine levels of performance.
Despite this, uniform application of the 20-70-10 rule, for example, assumes implicitly that it is desirable to have 20% of the people in each and every unit assessed as top performers. For many roles, this assumption is in contradiction to enterprise needs.
Serial attrition of talent
Some units perform work for which there is only a limited pool of capable potential hires. Because of the quota system, when the organization mis-appraises top performers as "Meets Expectations," or worse, those affected might voluntarily terminate if they believe they are being treated unfairly. They do so because the elevated demand for people with their skills means they can readily find alternative employment.
In this way, uniform quotas applied year after year eventually deplete any units that depend on people with rare and marketable skills and talent.
A zero-sum game
Finally, quota systems tend to create environments favorable to demoralization and inter-employee conflict, mainly because they create a zero-sum game. A zero-sum game is a mathematical construct that describes group processes in which the group members are pitted against each other. The total of gains of value summed across all participants is always equal to the total of losses of value summed across them.
For example, if you're working in a group in which you have a clear sense of who the favored 20% are, and you know you won't be among them, why would you go to great lengths to deliver excellent performance? Indeed, why would you even stay in that position? And inversely, if you were certain that you were among the favored 20%, why would you deliver excellent performance? After all, you know that your supervisor needs to report not less than 20% of his or her supervisees as Exceeds Expectations. Moreover, if you aren't among the favored 20%, and if you try to gain a place among the favored 20%, and they learn of your intentions, they might be motivated to try to prevent you from succeeding. The whole mess is just a nightmare for teamwork.

These phenomena can lead to exits by the most capable people, because they're the people who are most likely able and motivated to find alternative employment. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Power Distance and Teams  Next Issue

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When we think, "Paul doesn't trust me," we could be fooling ourselves into believing that we can read his mind. Unless he has directly expressed his distrust, we're just guessing, and we can reach whatever conclusion we wish, unconstrained by reality. In project management, as anywhere else, that's a recipe for trouble.
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See also Critical Thinking at Work and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Browsing books in a library. So many books, we must make choicesComing October 27: Five Guidelines for Choices
Each day we make dozens or hundreds of choices — maybe more. We make many of those choices outside our awareness. But we can make better choices if we can recognize choice patterns that often lead to trouble. Here are five guidelines for making choices. Available here and by RSS on October 27.
Ecotourists visit an iceberg off GreenlandAnd on November 3: Way Over Their Heads
For organizations in crisis, some but not all their people understand the situation. Toxic conflict can erupt between those who grasp the problem's severity and those who don't. Trying to resolve the conflict by educating one's opponents rarely works. There are alternatives. Available here and by RSS on November 3.

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