Sometimes corporate speak or shop talk migrates from cubicles to the front page. This is exactly what happened to the terms “performance review” and “performance appraisal” last November. That’s when Microsoft eliminated its so-called “stack ranking” of team members.
Last spring, Microsoft Chairman and co-founder Bill Gates read an advanced copy of The Bounty Effect: 7 Steps to The Culture of Collaboration®. The book shows how to change organizational structures from Industrial Age command-and-control to Information Age collaborative. Regarding performance reviews, The Bounty Effect demonstrates why ranking team members falls short and how a Collaborative Reward System creates greater value than an internally-competitive system. Ranking is essentially grading on a curve, because the organization often pre-determines which percentage of its workforce must fall into categories such as below target, target, above target and significantly above target. And grading on a curve fosters internal competition rather than collaboration. How encouraged are team members to share information and ideas if they must compete with colleagues for rankings? Not very. More likely, people will try to fake collaboration.
Headlines regarding Microsoft’s shift include “Stack Ranking Falls Outs of Favor” in Computerworld and “Microsoft Kills Its Hated Stack Rankings” in Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Within several days of Microsoft’s elimination of stack ranking, I was on a flight from Taipei to San Francisco reading The Wall Street Journal Asia edition. And I was fascinated to see a condemnation of Microsoft’s shift and a defense of ranking team members from Jack Welch, who once was CEO of a company known for using what Welch calls “differentiation.” That company is General Electric.
Here’s how Welch describes differentiation: “It’s about building great teams and great companies through consistency, transparency and candor. It’s about aligning performance with the organization’s mission and values. It’s about making sure that all employees know where they stand. Differentiation is nuanced, humane and occasionally complex, and it has been used successfully by companies for decades.”
In The Culture of Collaboration® book, I describe “differentiation and affirmation.” The process is more commonly called “rank and yank,” a term that Welch considers “media-invented” and “politicized.” One company that adopted the approach and created a star culture was Enron, which went bankrupt for many reasons. Star culture is a hallmark of the Industrial Age command-and-control organization. Such organizations pit people against one another and hidden agendas multiply. In contrast, a collaborative organization encourages team members to work in concert towards common goals.
Welch seems to endorse star culture in describing “feedback and coaching” as one component that makes “differentiation” work. “Your stars know they are loved and rarely leave. Those in the middle 70% know that they are appreciated, and they receive clear guidance about how to improve their performance. And the bottom 10% is never surprised when the conversation sometimes turns, after a year of candid appraisals, to moving on,” according to Welch.
Further, Welch endorses the “bell-curve” grading aspect of “differentiation.” “We grade children in school, often as young as 9 or 10, and no one calls that cruel. But somehow adults can’t take it? Explain that one to me.” Well, here it goes, Jack. Curve grading is no more helpful to children in school than it is to organizations. Our educational systems, particularly in the United States, too often foster unnecessary competition rather than collaboration. It’s no wonder why corporations have difficulty migrating from command-and-control to collaboration. Part of the reason is that team members competed for grades in school, competed for graduate school admissions while in college, and then competed for limited grant money and fellowships while in graduate school. In particular, law schools often grade first-year students on a curve in part to limit merit scholarship awards. Eliminating curve grading in which a fixed percentage must fail is a major step towards reducing internal competition and curbing the “star culture” that complicates collaboration.
Ranking team members is part of the broader recognition and reward process. This process typically features performance reviews, which distract organizations and waste an incredible amount of time. The Bounty Effect describes how to replace performance reviews with a far more collaborative approach. Whether we call ranking team members “differentiation” or “rank and yank,” this Industrial Age command-and-control approach has no place in an Information Age collaborative organization.