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Support excellence, don’t ‘force’ it

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in Leaders & Managers,Performance Reviews

by Mike Clark-Madison

I was gladdened to see a recent Business Week piece by Liz Ryan, one of the sharper knives in the workforce-advice drawer, where she takes on one of my own long-standing pet peeves: forced ranking. That's the system where managers have to rank all of their people in order, from best to worst, each year. It's usually attached to raises and bonuses, and in some firms—famously, General Electric— the people at the bottom of the list are, shall we say, directed toward other employment options.

I find this appalling. So does Ryan. "Good managers" evaluate people on their own merits and abilities, asking and expecting each one to surmount obstacles and become a better contributor year over year," she writes. "Good managers also handle performance problems without benefit of a forced ranking system that compels them to identify their biggest loser and other bottom-of-the-pack players."

Ryan's main theme in the piece is how corrosive forced ranking is to a work culture that's supposedly based on teamwork and empowerment, where everyone's contributions are valuable to the larger mission and goals of the enterprise. This is certainly true. My own strongest objection is that forced ranking makes a mockery of the very job description of front-line leaders—to make the most of the people on your team.

A forced ranking system tells you, the smart and hardworking front-line manager whose efforts are so critical to your enterprise's success, that your work adds absolutely no value. No matter how good you are, exactly half of your workers will be below average, based on some standard that may have no empirical meaning whatsoever, but which will nonetheless affect your people's lives in the most direct and unpleasant way. Forced ranking shifts all responsibility for performance onto individuals, making leadership and management redundant.

Obviously it doesn't work that way in real life.

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