There are No Ties at the Olympics

skyeteam performance reviews

As part of a two-part series, Eric looks at the pros and cons on each side of the Performance Management issue, as it relates to forced (or strongly recommended) ratings distributions.

Every year, around performance review time, in companies across the country the rationalizations of managers begin. “I don’t have any poor performers” they lament. “After the last RIF, I’m lucky to have employees, much less any ones or twos”, they cry. The choruses echo on and on to a similar cadence.

Truth be told, if managers are honest with themselves, they know who their rockstars are. If they remain honest with themselves, they actually can go through the exercise of stack ranking their employees. A forced-distribution rating system is simply expounding on this template, and then meting out bonuses, or merit increases in accordance with this list. Most leaders agree that “pay for performance” is a good thing, that they want to reward their top performers, and that nobody rides for free. However, when the rubber meets the road, it’s many of these same managers who balk at the notion of stack ranking employees and actually following through on these basic tenets.

I get it. It’s hard. Having difficult conversations is no one’s favorite thing to do. Parsing performance (many measures of which can be largely subjective and somewhat esoteric) doesn’t make this process any easier. In many companies that we work with, a concept called calibration is used. In a calibration session, managers are gathered together in a room to discuss the merits of each employee’s rating. This process helps to ensure that what I view as a “5” (if we’re using a five point rating scale) is consistent with how other managers view a “5”. In one such company, I was facilitating a calibration session when the Director of Professional Services listed all eight of his employees on the performance ratings grid that we had drawn on the wall. Eight employees. Eight “Five” ratings. Eight “excellent performers”. At the sight of this, there were more than a few grimaces…yet no one said anything. The leader, we’ll call him Jon, was well respected throughout the company, and led a very important, customer-facing function. As the smile settled on Jon’s face, I began to ask some tough questions. “Really, Jon? Everyone is a ‘five’?” I asked. “Even this guy?” I queried, pointing to a name on the board. Five laptops went missing and another employee saw them at his apartment. I mentioned to said employee that if those laptops found their way back to the office, there would be no questions asked. My cross examination, in a very “Law and Order” style continued toward Jon, “We recovered the laptops, but I’m not sure that attempted theft allows one’s performance to fall into the excellent category”.

At this point, others in the room began to chime in about reservations that they had with some other members of Jon’s team being rated so highly. The quickly became clear that all eight of these employees were certainly not deserving of the company’s highest performance rating. At the culmination of this calibration discussion, we were actually able to get to a place that reasonably resembled what Jon’s stack ranking of his employees looked like.

Job performance is more than just than just raw results. At the end of the day, the how matters almost as much (if not more than) the what. You may have to parse performance of your team members with an exacting lens, but just like the Olympics, there are only three athletes on the podium, and only one on each step. You may be splitting hairs, and evaluating differences in performance equivalent to a hundredth of a second differential in the 400 meters, but when the race is over, there are no ties at the Olympics.