We put the Talent in Applications

  • Authors

  • Blog Stats

    • 614,910 hits
  • Topics

  • Archives

  • Fistful of Talent Top Talent Management blogs
    Alltop, all the top stories

Is the bell tolling for the bell curve?

Posted by Ken Klaus on February 14, 2009


In an entry I posted last year titled, Taking the number out of the equation: Performance evaluations without performance ratings, I extolled the virtues of eliminating the performance rating.  Well actually what I said was “I am willing to accept that assigning a rating value is an easy and (mostly) objective way of evaluating worker performance.  But I can see no need to ever share the rating assessment with the worker (me) – because the rating is not meant for me, it’s just a tool for my manager.”  Assuming, as I did, that the HR department was closely following my posts, no doubt with great enthusiasm, I anticipated my proposal would be implemented that very same week.  Alas, I am still waiting.  What’s more, in a cruel twist of irony or possibly just well deserved Karma, I was recently asked to manage an internal performance review process we’re conducting within the development organization.  I’m still trying to work out the horrors I commited in a past life to have earned this privilege, but never mind – that’s not really what I wanted to write about anyway.  Getting back to the previous post, in the sentence immediately preceding the one I quoted above, I said “I think the whole bell curve model is a pile of horse manure – but that’s a topic for another day.”  Happily, that day has arrived.


Over the past year I’ve been contemplating how companies facilitate their talent review meeting.  Central to the talent review process is a box-chart analytic, generally in a 3×3 configuration, which most in the industry simply refer to as the nine-box.  For the uninitiated, here’s an example:

Nine-box Analytic

What I like, scratch that, what I love about the nine-box model is the multi-dimensional feedback it provides; helping customers not just to see what’s happening in their organization, but what they need to do to better align their talent management strategy with their business strategy.  The nine-box discussion makes the talent review meeting a true business driver and not just another dead end discussion.  Talent review meetings help companies assess worker engagement, risk of loss, organizational diversity, candidates for succession, and development gaps and they provide a starting point for addressing these challenges as well.  By comparison the bell curve analytic just feels outdated and sadly monochromatic.


In the global battle to attract and retain top talent it may turn out that the people you need to succeed are already working at your company; but if you can’t discover, motivate, challenge, develop, promote and compensate them, the battle may already be lost.  Talent reviews are one way for companies to identify, develop and reward both their best performers and their high potentials; but they also help to reveal the underlying reasons for poor performance –  workers who are in the wrong role, who need additional training, who are being poorly managed or under compensated – as well as those who simply need to be managed out of the organization.  The one dimensional feedback provided in the bell curve will never help to surface these critical path issues.  The nine-box, by contrast, offers a multi-dimensional perspective of the organization that can serve as the anchor for the talent review meeting and the cornerstone of a holistic talent management strategy.


I’d love to hear what you think about the bell curve, the nine-box, talent review meetings, or any of the other talent management challenges facing your organization.  In the mean time I’m off to lead this internal performance review and hopefully earn a little good Karma in the process.  Wish me luck!


9 Responses to “Is the bell tolling for the bell curve?”

  1. Amy Wilson said

    Good stuff, Ken. I agree that the 9 box provides a better starting point to discuss the fluid nature of talent – that there is a life cycle of growth and achievement (and possibly starting over). Meanwhile, the bell curve is stuck in the past and doesn’t provide opportunities for change.

    I think it’s hilarious that you’re managing the performance process. Karma indeed! 🙂

  2. […] Is the bell tolling for the bell curve? […]

  3. Meg Bear said

    I can’t wait to see what insights come after being in charge of a performance cycle. I think the TalentedApps blog is looking forward to that for sure ;-).

  4. Ken Klaus said

    Good Karma AND new subject matter for the blog! What more could a guy ask for? =)

  5. […] 2009 As often happens in Talent circles we spend a good amount of time thinking and talking about high potentials.  We review our high potentials, we define programs for them, we measure and monitor them.  What […]

  6. Ben said

    “I’d love to hear what you think about the bell curve”

    If you mean the book, I think it’s an amazing summary of how psychometric tests can predict academic and occupational success. In recent years increasing research by Dr Ian Deary and Linda Gottfredson has also shown its connection to health outcomes.

    Professor Gottfredson has more specifically about the use of standardised tests in terms of career assessment:

    Gottfredson, L. S. (2003). The challenge and promise of cognitive career assessment. Journal of Career Assessment, 11(2), 115-135.

    Click to access 2003challengeandpromise.pdf

    Gottfredson, L. S. (2002). Where and why g matters: Not a mystery. Human Performance, 15(1/2), 25-46.

    “g is a highly general capability for processing complex information of any type.

    This explains its great value in predicting job performance. Complexity is the major distinction among jobs, which explains why g is more important further up the occupational hierarchy.”

    Click to access 2002notamystery.pdf

  7. […] occurred to me while reading this book, that Ken had it going on when he challenged the usefulness of the bell curve when making critical business decisions around […]

  8. Jerry said

    It sounds great and can be utilized, but sadly, in reality it is only as good as those doing the evaluation. The problem in too many organizations is not the team members who are actually fueling the engine of the business, the problem often resides squarely with the executive leadership who are too prideful and arrogant to realize they are the problem. People will typically live up to the reputations and expectations we give them. And nothing can destroy morale more quickly than someone sitting in a board room making determinations about other peoples abilities. In many cases the assessments are made upon nothing more than a subjective belief from someone who has spent very little time understanding the work their team is actually performing.

    A team member who has been pegged as a low performer by a supervisor is absolutely destroyed. When a supervisor makes that assessment it is based upon his/her opinion and rarely on fact. (come on now… I’m not talking about the way it should be… I’m talking about the way it IS.) Many times it is personality based and that is all. And let’s be perfectly honest here. It is way too often based upon the supervisor’s insecurity, jealousy, fear, or pride, arrogance, power or any number of issues the supervisor has. Our evaluation of self, often says more about the evaluator than it does the one being evaluated.

    You may call me cynical and dismiss my comments, but if you want to manage people, I’m just telling you it won’t be successful until you become humble and more interested in coaching than criticizing, more interested in praising than fault finding, more interested in people building than people evaluating. If your team is not performing to your standards… first take a look and ask if you are being reasonable. If you are – next you need to ask them what obstacles are in their way. You know something – you may just find out the reason they are not meeting your expectations is because they don’t have the equipment, the opportunity, or a supervisor or team mate is holding them down. You may be able to remove an obstacle and solve both their problem and yours too. You have to remember, your job is not to be the great evaluator of mankind. Your role as a supervisor or boss is to coach, train, support, encourage and yes, hold accountable. But accountability or the disciplinary end of accountability is the area most frequently focused upon.

    Let me just ask you… how do you want to be evaluated? How do you want to be treated? Do you want some yahoo making the determination that you are a bum who is a low performer? I doubt that seriously.

    Please, for the love of God do me a favor… if you supervise someone… tell them you appreciate them today and find out if they need anything.

    I realize many of you reading my words are likely rolling your eyes. You may want to fill out an evaluation on me and tell me I’m a low performer. But, I am just telling you the truth. People are human beings and putting their entire self worth and performance in one of your boxes and calling your opinion truth is poor management in my opinion. I know…

  9. Jerry said

    By the way, I got a little worked up this morning. It was not so much in response to this model of evaluation, it is a response to the dysfunctional management I finally got away from a few months ago. It was a great company until some very unhealthy styles were implemented. The morale is the lowest I have seen it after 12 years of being there and loving my job. It’s sad to see that happen and I think I got a little carried away taking the opportunity to let out some frustration. Sorry about that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: