5 Reasons Microsoft Was Right to Terminate Bell-Curve Assessments

As reported in the Economic Times, Microsoft abandoned ‘bell-curve’ assessments in 2013. The decision came after the 2012 Vanity Fair article “Microsoft’s Lost Decade” by Kurt Eichenweld blamed the practice, in large part, for ‘killing innovation and teamwork’. This practice was also promoted by other leaders, most notably, Jack Welch, who as CEO of GE wanted to cull non-performers (the bottom of the bell curve) from the then too-large GE workforce. Unfortunately other organizations adopted the tactic even though their situations were different.

Five reasons why the approach belongs in the office waste bin.

People compare themselves to each other rather than the job requirements

Rather than take the time to construct a comprehensive definition of what was required for a specific role, managers only had to compare employee performances against each other. Without an objective standard for their roles, employees schemed to retain/elevate their status by seeking placement in projects with less-capable performers. Teamwork morphed into inter-team positioning and popularity.

Damages high-value collaboration

With top-performers avoiding, rather than seeking to work with the best, Microsoft was assured of getting considerably less than what was possible from their talented workforce.

Assumes poor hiring practices/‘normal’ population

At its base, the practice assumes the workforce to be a statistically ‘normal’ population—meaning each group has few high-performers, a majority of solid ‘citizens’, and a few folk doing the minimum who are targeted for elimination. This is only true in the aggregate and quickly falls apart in smaller teams. If leaders and managers hire well then the resulting teams are composed of, at least, above-average performers.

Encourages employees to disengage

Faced with an assessment system which blocked their best efforts, employees were discouraged from unleashing their passions within transformative projects, and instead resigned themselves to politicking for positions to keep their ratings and jobs. Surviving never equals rewarding.

Reduces respect for leadership (and HR)

The Economic Times article reveals an interesting fact—that employees were surprised that the company abandoned the method, even though the negative internal consequences must have been apparent. Perhaps the 2012 external article forced leaders to finally evaluate an HR practice which was implemented to ensure performance but, in reality, greatly inhibited innovation and collaboration. The employees’ disbelief revealed their assessment of those responsible.
Managers need to create a comprehensive picture of how employees can strategically contribute then hold them accountable and evaluate their performance based on what’s required.
Microsoft’s recent advances are impressive. I just moved our company to Office 365 Enterprise and am delighted with the collaborative environment and the value it represents. Perhaps Satya Nadella’s refreshing vision is now falling on employees who can freely work together to accomplish what’s required in a way they couldn’t previously. If true, the potential of Microsoft’s workforce is just now being unleashed.


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