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Performance improvement plans and the culture of fear

As I’m sure you know, the term ‘decimate’ has its origins in the Roman army where, to snuff out the risk of mutiny or punish disobedience, one in 10 soldiers in a cohort would be killed. In a nice twist, it was usually fellow soldiers who were forced to carry out the clubbings and stonings.

In these days of enlightened management principles, world class business school teaching and truckloads of data on every imaginable aspect of worker motivation, surely we would never rely on the visceral fear of a cull to help us manage performance? After all, most business leaders are falling over themselves to trumpet how they have improved employee engagement and harnessed ‘discretionary effort’, even during the downturn. And this can’t be achieved through fear, as we all know.

Well, apparently it is possible to promote an inclusive climate of high engagement and cull 10% of your workforce each year without any contradiction or irony. Indeed, the concept of the forced distribution in performance rankings – where the ?bottom 10% of performers are put on Orwellian performance improvement plans (PIPs) as a prelude to being ?managed out of the business – looks like it is back in earnest in the UK, despite being on the wane in the US where it has failed a number of legal tests.

And, just to confuse everyone, the practice has benign names: quarterly performance reviews (at Yahoo); employee review (Microsoft); the vitality curve (General Electric); and expected or guided distribution (the Civil Service). Other terms are more direct, such as stack ranking and rank and yank.

All rely on the flawed notion that, in any normal distribution (or bell curve), it is possible to identify the bottom 10% of ?performers who, if improved or eliminated, will improve the average and, in turn, create a performance culture that ?‘rewards doers’, which can be helpful for ‘building the muscle’ of the organisation. Frankly, I despair at all this and would love an eminent HR director to explain convincingly why they use it and, moreover, how it doesn’t undermine trust, create fear, destroy team-working and damage the line manager-worker relationship.

I have spoken to several managers in big organisations where this approach is used, and the impact is often toxic. One manager had to put 10% of her team on a PIP even though they all exceeded their targets – just because of this bell curve logic. When she complained, she was herself put on a PIP to help her “reassess her priorities”. If we applied this approach to all-time Test match batting averages, Sir Leonard Hutton would drop out of the top echelon because the vitality curve insists on shining a menacing light on the ‘worst of the best’ rather than just on the ‘worst’. It’s what you get when you conflate a ?relative measure (ranking) with an absolute measure (rating) – a car crash of an HR practice.

Being charitable, let’s assume that rank and yank is grossly misunderstood (including by me) and just needs better communication so that its supportively developmental credentials are emphasised and the more clumsy ?examples of implementation ironed out. Conversely, it could just be another example of HR willingly taking a shot of testosterone to show CEOs that it, too, has a scary side and then pimping itself to the worst kind of social Darwinism.

Even if the intent is honourable, in most cases the execution is certainly not. As the well-known HR guru and part-time poet John Donne almost once said: “Ask not for whom the bell curve tolls – it tolls for thee.”

Stephen Bevan is director of the Centre for Workforce Effectiveness at The Work Foundation.