Some performance metrics actually hurt what they measure

Who developed the theory of evolution? Who invented the telephone? What about the radio? Pretty obvious answers, one would assume. Charles Darwin, Alexander Bell and Marconi, respectively, right? Well, it's not as straightforward.

Both Darwin and fellow naturalist Alfred Wallace independently arrived at the theory of evolution. However, Darwin is historically credited with the theory even though the book which shot him to prominence, The Origin of Species, was published a year after a seminal paper on the theory of natural selection, which was jointly authored by Wallace and Darwin. Alexander Bell and Elisha Gray both developed the telephone and filed patents for it on exactly the same day; 14 February 1876. Bell was eventually allotted the patent after a bitter legal fight. And the inventor of the radio? Marconi or Tesla? Depends, because the two scientists developed the technology independently and history credits both of them, based on who wrote it.

While credit for countless inventions or discoveries may be debated, humankind's most meaningful achievements result from the collaborative efforts of thousands of individuals and not a lone genius working single-handedly, however sensational the latter might sound. Development of the internet, vaccines, DNA sequencing, space exploration, etc, are all fields which may have public figures as their heroes, but they represent the work of innumerable individuals who laid their foundations, contributed and worked without glory. On 20 July 1969, when the world watched Neil Armstrong's moonwalk, they were witnessing the efforts of 400,000 unsung people working on the Apollo mission for eight years. That's how many it took to put two men on the moon!

And while it is also true that like Armstrong, Steve Jobs, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Tim Berners-Lee (The 'father' of the internet), some personalities capture the public imagination, significant accomplishments are the result of collaborative load-sharing, rather than the extraordinary performance of an individual gladiator.

Sadly, that is often not the way several organizations manage their talent.

Most talent appraisal systems are reductive in nature and perhaps none as blatantly so as the Gaussian distribution, commonly known in corporates as the Bell Curve. The theory propounds that while it may be impossible to predict the result of a single event, it is possible to predict the outcome pattern of multiple events because most cluster around the 'middle' (or average), with some deviation on either side. This concept is easily illustrated using a slanting board that has several pins stuck out. If a single metal ball is rolled from the top to the bottom, its path and final resting place is erratic because the direction of the ball changes randomly each time it hits a pin and hence is unpredictable until it settles at the bottom of the board. But, if a hundred metal balls are rolled from the top, then they will fall into the shape of a curve or a 'bell' at the bottom, with bulk of the balls bunching in the centre and a few on either sides.

The Bell Curve's interpretation in the performance evaluation of employees is that most will be average, some above, and some below average. This simplistic abstraction makes the appraisal process relatively easier to execute. It is easy to measure the median and deviations on either side. The human resources strategy is to keep the 'average' satisfied by matching inflation with pay, delight the ones who are at the desirable end of the Bell Curve as relative outliers, and chastise or fire those at the low-performance end. However, the problem is that human beings aren't metal balls.

The implementation of a Bell Curve distribution in an organization usually incentivizes self-centric behaviour rather than joint alignment towards the organizational purpose. Those judged as average know that they will probably remain average because even if they improve, they will still be rated average since everyone else is also improving. Rather than fighting to get into the top bracket, they are more likely to cling to their average position, fearful of dropping further. Those in the lowest slab are understandably terrified and start seeking other opportunities. Their focus shifts from the organizational mission to self-survival. Like leading race drivers, those in the top percentile fiercely defend their positions to a point of fratricide, expecting and giving no quarter to their competitors, and unlikely to take risks, offer help or share credit. By promoting self-aggrandisement, the Bell Curve often pits colleagues against one another internally, rather than focusing on external competitors. Deploying a self-catering divisive tool is hardly a good strategy for organizational alignment or synergy.

The supreme irony of the Gaussian distribution is that while German Carl Friedrich Gauss (considered one of the most gifted mathematicians of the 20th century), did indeed formalize and popularize the concept, it was based on the work of lesser-known French mathematicians Abraham de Moivre and Pierre-Simon Laplace, among others. A concept that was developed as a collaborative effort over decades is ironically being used at times to disincentivize collaboration within organizations.

Raghu Raman is founding CEO of the National Intelligence Grid, distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation and author of 'Everyman's War'