Possibly The Last Word on Forced Distributions

Quite some time ago I wrote about forced distributions in performance reviews. This is where a company sets the proportions of people who will receive specific performance review ratings.

They say that a certain percentage of the company and each department, often even down to small teams, must receive a rating so that all the ratings fit a standard distribution or ‘bell curve’.

As a result a number of people will get the lowest rating for their performance.

Last time I wrote about it, I gave various reasons for it being an unsatisfactory strategy.

Since then I have had many comments and discussions about this topic.

The Last Word

Earlier this year we were on holiday with a very old friend of ours, who happens to be a top statistician. So I took the opportunity to ask him what he thought of the ‘forced distribution’.

He laughed at me and looked almost incredulous. ‘Nancy, you have got ‘O’ level maths, haven’t you?’ He asked me. (For those non-UK people or anyone under 40, these were the standard exams for 16 year olds, a bit like OWLs in Harry Potter.)

I nodded.

‘Well, in that case you should know that you only get a normal distribution when you have a RANDOM sample. And if any company really has a random sample of employees, they should be asking some very serious questions about their recruitment processes.’

I could hardly stop laughing. Of course he was absolutely right.

In Defence of the Companies

The trouble is that many companies are in the situation where a large proportion of their employees are getting performance ratings well over those that their performance indicates.

We all know this. We have all seen people getting ‘exceeded expectations’ (not really a very wise choice of words) who we know have hardly achieved their objectives or have done it at the expense of others, or who, for a myriad of reasons, do not deserve this rating.

We have also all seen people who have performed very badly for years and the issues have not even been mentioned, let alone tackled.

So in order to force their managers to do something about this, companies adopt the ‘forced distribution’ in the hope that it will resolve this problem.

Why It Doesn’t Work

The trouble is that many of the people who are penalised unfairly are the very people who have been tackling the performance issues.

The skilled managers who have been recruiting effectively, coaching and training their staff and dealing with any performance issues are then made to give their team members performance ratings that are false. This can completely undermine all the good work they have done.

It can also cause huge resentment amongst the employees and major problems in small teams, demotivating everyone and, as a result, reducing performance.

This is reinforced when people realise that, although the senior managers, or directors form a small team, for some reason, they don’t seem to be part of the forced distribution.

What Can You Do?

The real issue here is poor management skills. Usually from right at the top. (If the managers at the top had effective management skills, they would have been coaching and training their direct reports, the managers who work for them and run the teams and departments where performance is poor, and getting them to tackle performance issues.)

So the key thing is to improve the management skills right at the top. Not by forcing them, but by helping them to learn how to deal with performance issues.

Only when those at the top start doing this is it likely that these practices will start to become commonplace in the organisation.

Clear Standards

You need to make sure everyone has clear objectives and standards of performance. They need to know what, if anything, they need to do to meet those standards.

Reasons for Poor Performance

When I run workshops on how to deal with poor performance I often start with a clip from one of my favourite films: ‘Shaun of the Dead’

If you haven’t seen this film, please do. It’s not the terrifying horror film I thought it was before I saw it. It’s the story of two friends who are living in a world where everyone is being turned into zombies. They are men in their 20s and are completely oblivious to this going on around them. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you any more.

In the clip we see Shaun trying, without success, to run a short meeting in the white goods shop where he works. The manager and his assistant are both off (presumably they have become zombies) and we see Shaun stumble through the meeting, not knowing what to say and failing to stop one of the team members answering his mobile phone and then texting a message.

We then ask why his performance is so poor.

It turns out that the absent manager is completely responsible. How can this be when he isn’t even there?

He clearly has set no standards of performance

Shaun stepped in because no one else did. He was doing his best and taking initiative. The manager had not nominated anyone in his absence

Shaun has clearly had no training in how to do this

There are obviously no objectives

I could go on.

The Manager’s Responsibility

Why is it that many senior managers don’t take responsibility for poor performance in their departments? I think this is because they don’t realise that managing the department and the people in it is their job.

It is their responsibility to ensure that the managers working for them are able to get the performance required; this is what they are being paid for.

Even when they do realise this, many seem unwilling to recognise that they need to improve their skills in this area, instead sending everyone else on the relevant training courses, but not going themselves.


I can’t begin to count the times I have had people on a training course asking why their manager has not been on the course or why the manager is not practising the skills themselves.

This is a constant source of embarrassment. But it’s also an indication that whoever is at the top of an organisation is also not tackling performance issues.

The Root Of The Problem

Until the person at the top starts to do this, I don’t think you can expect to get issues tackled consistently and effectively in an organisation.

We have all been seeing examples of bankers at the top of their companies who we (quite rightly in my view) think are overpaid. I suggest this problem is not limited to banking. I think a large proportion of a top executive’s pay should depend on their having managed their team effectively including tackling all performance issues.

I think this would be a far more effective way of tackling performance issues than the ‘forced distribution’ and a great deal fairer.

Are You Creating Work?

Underneath a pile of old videos I recently found an audio tape of Oliver Postgate reading his autobiography. I have no idea where it came from.

If you don’t know who Oliver Postgate is, he wrote and presented charming children’s animated TV programs including Noggin the Nog (my personal favourite), The Clangers, Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss and Pogle’s Wood in the 1960-80s.

His voice is unmistakable to any who have heard it.

To make my 5:30 am journey to Slough more bearable, I treated myself to listening to this old tape.

Oliver Postage turned out to be even more interesting than I had imagined. He was very closely linked with the Suffragette movement (my own great, great aunt was a suffragette) and had some fascinating ancestors, including George Lansbury, one of the founders of the Labour Party.


He invented many things in order to make the films he was to become famous for. But he also invented other things too. One of these was, 30 years ago, a house that needed no heating from February to November.

He went to companies trying to persuade them to build it, but they declined. Their reason? There was no maintenance so ‘there would not be enough work’ for them.

Should We Be Creating Work?

Whenever I hear about ‘job creation schemes’ or ways of ‘creating work’ my heart sinks.

Just imagine going home to your family or co-habitee(s) and saying ‘Let’s create some work for ourselves this evening instead of going for a drink or watching TV.’ They would think you were mad. And quite right too.

At home we generally do what we can to reduce the amount of ‘work’ we have to do.

So why do people create work? It’s not the work they really want to create, it’s the money they will get for doing it. But unfortunately we get wrapped up in the process rather than what it is we need to achieve.

A Victorian Anthropologist

I heard about this chap on a radio programme, many years ago, but his example stuck in my mind.

I don’t remember his name, but he was sent off as quite a young researcher to live with a tribe in the forest somewhere and find out how they lived.

During the year he lived with them he took copious notes on what they spent their time doing. Try as he might, he could not find more than 20 hours of activity a week that could possibly be categorised as ‘work’.

Even this was stretching it, we were to hear, as fruit-gathering and cooking were turned into fun activities and people got together singing while they carried out these tasks.

The rest of the time, they enjoyed themselves.

Strangely, when his time was up, he didn’t want to come home.

The School Report

Like many reports, my daughter’s school report has marks both for achievement and effort.

My daughter was quite dismayed to see a low mark for effort in a subject that she has worked really hard at, yet high scores for effort in other subjects.

Personally I would be much happier to see high achievement marks and lower effort marks. This is because I’d like her to find easy ways of doing things, not spend all her time slogging away making heavy weather of everything.

An Insult

In my last job as a Production Manager I remember one of the engineers coming down to my department one day. ‘It’s alright for you, your job’s easy!’ He said with a sneer. I was furious. Now I know better.

That’s because I have spent the last 20 years doing my best to find easy simple straightforward ways to make managing people easier than most people make it.

‘Everest The Hard Way’

I love the title of Sir Chris Bonnington’s book. Sometimes, though, I think we are all climbing Everest the hard way.

When I heard the late Oliver Postgate saying how no-one wanted to build houses to his design, I could not shake the feeling of huge sadness at an opportunity missed. People get stuck in the ‘creating work’ mindset. It’s all too easy.

Not Creating Work

Let me finish with the very recent story of a participant on a workshop at a company that had just announced 10% redundancies the previous day.

The atmosphere was tense. One of the participants told me that he was the only breadwinner and he had a wife much younger than himself and three children.

The workshop was on objectives so we used his situation as an example and helped him write his current personal objectives.

He started off with something like: ‘I must keep my job.’ And ‘ I must have work’. Clearly this was not totally within his control. He shifted to ‘I must have a job.’

Still stuck in the same rut.

We then started looking at what he really needed to achieve. He needed to have a certain income per month or per year. This is a man with web design skills and plenty of other technical skills to boot. The possibilities are almost limitless.

Gradually we were able to help him work out what he really needed to achieve.

At the end of the workshop he came up and shook my hand saying that he felt like a new man and was really excited by the opportunities he could now see.

Everest The Easy Way

I’d like to suggest that we all put a bit more effort in to working out the easy ways to achieve things, so that in the long run we can all enjoy ourselves a bit more, just like the Victorian anthropologist and his friends.

Can You Use The Phone?

I’ve been having a lot of conversations recently about what can and can’t be done over the phone.

People seem to have very strong views on this.

I am often told that you can’t really do coaching over the phone, or that one to one meetings must be face to face.


When I ask this question people say they need to see the other person to get body language signals.

Blind People

Years ago blind people were not allowed to serve as jurors here in the UK. This was for similar reasons. Then it turned out that blind people were better at telling if someone was lying than sighted people. The reason; sighted people are distracted by the body language signals they see.

The evidence is that it is easier to tell if someone is lying over the phone than face to face.

What’s Going On?

We are ignoring lots of useful information that is encoded in speech because our attention is taken up by what we can see.

But the information is still there to be used.

How Old Are You?

When I was young I remember my father, always careful with his money, putting a sticker on the phone pointing out that it was ‘Cheaper after 6 and at weekends’. We were discouraged from using the phone very much because it was quite expensive.

Now things have changed radically.

My daughter and her friends spend hours phoning, chatting and texting each other.

They do not complain about this or say they need to see each other face to face all the time. You may say that their discussions are trivial. And many probably are. But not all. As they have these discussions they are developing the skills to handle numerous situations using these communication channels.

More and more people are becoming skilled in these areas. Those who are not will soon be in a minority.

Learn Some New Skills

When I hear people telling me that you can’t carry out difficult meetings by phone I know that, in most cases it’s because they don’t have the skills to do it. We know that coaching can be done over the phone because there are companies that provide this service exclusively over the phone and do so very successfully. (It’s a service we also provide.)

Meetings by Phone

One of my clients attended a telephone meeting where she was in a remote location and the rest of her colleagues were in the same room using a speaker phone. They left the room without telling her the meeting was over.

This was not deliberate, just thoughtless.

More complicated telephone meetings need a different etiquette to those run face to face. The mistake that most people make is that they forget people can’t see them. Once you have set up etiquette standards and got people to work to them this is easy enough.

Doing Your Emails

Another problem is people on a telephone meeting doing their emails and not paying attention.

There are some different points here. Firstly, if they are doing their emails it may well be because they are not involved in vast tracts of the meeting and are trying to keep up with their work. In which case, should they have been invited to the meeting at all?

Or it may be that they just don’t care about the meeting, or have something urgent to attend to.

Or it may be they should have turned off their email so that they are not distracted.

None of these could be described as a reason not to have telephone meetings. They are reasons to have clear rules and standards during the meeting (and criteria for attending).

Time To Review The Situation

At the moment we are all trying to save money. This is one of the easiest ways to do it. When we all heard about the MPs’ expenses a few months ago here in the UK, one of the examples used and heartily mocked was an MP using a PA who was 150 miles away. Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye (whose comments I usually very much enjoy) ridiculed this arrangement as being patently unworkable.

It’s how we work here at Vinehouse, and have done ever since we started. We find it works perfectly. Yes, we have had to learn a few new skills. I think the key difference is that we all know it’s OK to call a colleague just for a chat because we know we will never meet at the coffee machine.

Not exactly rocket science.

This new way of working is why we are able to run a webinar (If you are joining us tomorrow at 2pm UK time I hope you will find it useful) for 150 people at very low cost to all those involved. Just think of the costs involved if we all had to travel to a hotel to do this.

So I suggest you have a look at the meetings you hold and take part in. Ask yourself if you could hold them by phone and see how much traveling you could avoid, and how much time and money that would save. Oh yes, and you’d be saving the planet too.

Even if you are as old as I am you can still learn how to do this.