Forced Distribution Ranking again?

Today, a piece on Channel News Asia caught my eye. It was “Commentary: Why ranking employees using a forced distribution model is a zombie idea.” I had written something on this called “For Whom the Bell Tolls in 2012 and I would encourage you to have a read of it.

It has been said many times by Alan Weiss and others that “Bureaucracy is the triumph of means over ends.” This is the tendency of creating structures, frameworks, based on ideas and concepts. These structures or frameworks may or may not work depending on how fallacious or how wise the thinking behind them was. One manifestation of this is the practice of forced ranking, or grading on the curve. It was meant to provide incentives for increased productivity and promoting oneself as better than one’s peers. Of course, human nature being what it is, that opened wide the doors for apple-polishing, back-stabbing, “busywork” and so forth. The disincentives were that if one did not play by the unwritten rules of this destructive framework, one could very well find oneself in the lower percentiles. This would have been akin to being labelled and treated like someone from the Dalit or “Untouchable” caste, the caste system still being present in modern-day India. Thomas Sowell has put it very well, that people will behave logically according to the incentives that their environment provides for them. If forced ranking is the way to advancement in one’s career, then one would behave in a manner consistent with what that model entails.

Are there better ways? Of course. One need only remember the late Tony Hsieh’s practices of openness with regard to company financials, operational strategy, brands of shoes to be carried and even transparent salaries. Zappos’ way of giving new hires the option of taking a few thousand dollars and leaving after a few weeks on onboarding was a great one. Few, if any, ever took the proffered. Employees could call each other out and working teams regularly ranked themselves openly and candidly. I am not sure whether these great practices have continued, but they certainly helped Zappos become the billion-dollar company it was at the time it was acquired by Amazon.

Genghis Khan had another thing to teach us concerning forced ranking. From page 52 of Jack Weatherford’s “Genghis Khan and the making of the modern world” we see how a basic unit of his army, which concept was also used in the society at large, was organized:

“He organized his warriors into squads, or arban, of ten who were to be brothers to one another. No matter what their kin group or tribal origin, they were ordered to live and fight together as loyally as brothers; in the ultimate affirmation of kinship, no one of them could ever leave the other behind in battle as a captive. Like any family of brothers in which the eldest had total control, the eldest man took the leadership position in the Mongol arban, but the men could also decide to choose another to hold this position.”

With such an ethos, forced ranking would be unnecessary. Real-world interactions between flesh-and-blood people would have raised leaders up naturally and the followers would have followed them wholeheartedly. This basic practice and mindset went all the way upwards, meaning there was never any shortage of “talent” being raised. Artificial means of controlling promotions, rewards and “maintaining the leadership pipeline” seldom, if ever, fulfill what they were designed to do, and they are almost never adjusted to suit prevailing conditions.

Change your mindset over forced rankings or “stack rankings”, as they are called elsewhere. Calls for this to happen have been going on for a long time. Why have so many companies not heeded? Well, that is a matter of deciding to change the company culture, starting at the top. When are you going to start?

I say that this forced ranking mindset has already manifested itself anew in the current “woke” culture, including “social justice” and “critical race theory”. Information about these things is everywhere. Are we wise enough to heed and take appropriate action?

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