by Paul Niquette
Copyright 1996 Resource Books All rights reserved.

fiasco n.  An utter and often ridiculous failure; especially of an ambitious or pretentious undertaking. 

A word of mightiest meaning and meanness.  I'm saving it.

First time I used the word "fiasco" was in the late sixties.  About that time management science embraced the "rating curve."  My company was among the great plurality of enterprises engaged in the application of the principle -- that of "zero sum" (win-lose) for all employees.  I enjoyed the status of membership in "middle management" -- that tribe of hapless folk who are guaranteed a place in heaven, having atoned on earth for many lifetimes of iniquities.  Here is an excerpt from the policy manual:

The following is the anticipated mixture of ratings:
  • Far Below Standard   0 %
  • Below Standard       10 %
  • Meets Standard       75 %
  • Above Standard       10 %
  • Far Above Standard   5 %
Any significant deviation from this mix will require an explanation by the manager.  [emphasis in the original]
Managements have intermittently experimented with "the rating curve" as a means of "disaggregating judgment," a worthy, if often abused, objective.  The literature fluctuates between trumpeting the idea as a disciplinary boon and lamenting its susceptibility to The Law of Unintended Consequences.  The arguments are familiar:
  • Everybody cannot be above standard.  (Yes they can.)
  • People must be motivated to compete with each other. (So much for team building.)
  • Most persons rate themselves as average. (No they don't.)
When numbers are small, the curve loses its meaning altogether.  That can happen even in large companies, for some categories of employees.  To produce an integer solution for the tabulation above, you need a headcount of 20 (1 for Far Above Standard, 2 each Above Standard and Below Standard, and 15 Meets Standard).

As with any performance-dependent compensation scheme, "you get what you reward."  From rating curves, you get cruel and crooked management ploys.

  • To avoid the administrative pain attendant to "any significant deviation" while still reporting the presence of a couple of Above Standards, a manager is tempted to keep a couple of Below Standards around.
  • No manager would admit to hiring anyone below Above Standard, but a Below Standard who is already on board does confer an offsetting value in a zero-sum game.
One confliction is to cultivate -- and at the same time to immobilize -- a Below Standard.  Last thing a manager wants is for a Below Standard to ascend to Meets Standard -- unless some other Meets Standard can be reported as descending to Below Standard in the same review period.  Problem is, a typical Below Standard will invariably want to be told how to achieve Meets Standard -- or worse -- Above Standard performance levels.  At the same time, all your Above Standards will expend a pernicious effort to protect their rating, many aspiring to the rarefied atmosphere populated only by the Far Above Standard.

Administrative pain-avoidance by managers is not the only consideration.  Another is morale of employees.  For example, Far Above Standards triumph over -- and receive the resentment of -- their peers.  The rating curve actually creates asymmetrical win-lose relationships: win for the few, lose for the many.  There are nasty realities, too...

  • Minor projects draw lower ratings than major ones;
  • Risky, lower than safe;
  • Mundane, lower than glamorous;
  • Obscure, lower than visible
...all being business factors that are independent of individual performance.  Fairness is hardly assured by forced-balance ranking procedures.

Most of your Meets Standards perceive themselves as Above Standards.  That's a fact. Being told otherwise, often as not, demolishes self-esteem.  A few complain bitterly.  Those are the ones you might best classify as Above Standard, whether they deserve it or not.  Still, some employees are more submissive than others.  A manager need fear no complaints from a docile Meets Standards, even in some cases getting away with an unwarranted imposition of the Below Standard label.  Thus, placement on the curve results as much from employee temperament as from performance.

Most likely the rating curve arrived in the business environment fully discredited from the halls of academe, where, truth be known, selection predominates over education (see Discovering Assumptions).  And please, don't even mention the withering effects of the policy at all echelons throughout military establishments.

When the rating curve shows up again, then and only then will I use the word "fiasco."

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