Office politics promoted by force ranking job performance

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Feb 25

The Winter Olympics does a good job of force ranking job performance, doesn’t it? You get gold, silver and bronze metals based on your performance over a course or event.

Business, however, is not the same — but management tries force ranking employees anyway. In Why Forced Ranking is a Bad Idea, Peter Bregman notes some very good reasons why forced ranking fails; here is my take on how force ranking people promotes the wrong kind of office politics.

Forced ranking works best when there is a single element to rank

Thinking back over the Winter Olympics, you’ll see that many of the events — skiing, speed skating — are all done with one element in mind: speed. Yes, you can’t go outside the lines, but, in the end, the fastest person gets to the top of the forced ranking.

Jobs are not like that — there is no single element to rank. Each person brings a special, and often unique, talent to the job. Forced ranking takes all of those special talents away and tries to shove them into a silo of only one thing that counts. The office politics all go after that singular trait; good for the team or not.

Forced ranking fails when you try and rank apples and hubcaps

This should be obvious, but in a work environment, you can’t compare what a group of programmers do — analysts — with what finance people do — also analysts. The subject matter they deal with is entirely different and even though their titles are the same, the work is different.

Most companies won’t try and force rank different groups — but look at your own situation and decide for yourself. When people from diverse and different departments are ranked together, the office politics point to not helping other departments out; you are simply aiding and abetting your competition for top scores.

Forced ranking fails when you try and rank apples and oranges

Sure, apples and oranges are both fruits — so they must be the same, right? Well, no, they are simply members of the same family.

Just like people are forced ranked because they have similar jobs in the same department. My group of escalated analysts were force ranked with my coworker’s group of escalated analysts. My group handled mortgage issues from mortgage brokers and bankers, his group handled technology issues like laptops and Blackberries. While both groups were escalated support analysts, the skills required for them to do their work were entirely different.

Didn’t matter, we had to force rank them. Just for good measure, since I had more people in my group, more of my group ended up on the bottom of the forced ranking, making them more vulnerable to a layoff. They knew it, too, because my people were really smart, just like your employees. They didn’t want to help their competition across the aisle because of it. Sweet.

Forced ranking encourages people to not help each other

We all talk about all that cool teamwork we want, right? So when I help another person succeed, produce significant results, I get rewarded for that, correct? Well, not so much. When I get forced ranked with the person I helped and what that person produced — with my help — has results better than mine, I get penalized by getting ranked lower.

Makes we want to go out and hug all my coworkers. Nothing else, of course. Just hugs.

What it really encourages me to do, however, is use those office politics to submarine anyone who might be producing better results than I am. When the only activity going on during team meetings is figuring out who to nail next so you can stay on top, you’ve succeeded as a manager, right?

Forced ranking encourages people to not learn new skills

Think about this for a minute. You want your people to learn new skills so they can more effectively help a department reach their goals. Yet, what happens when people go and learn a new skill? For a time, they become less productive and produce fewer results. That’s what happens when you are learning — you are learning.

Now throw in your forced ranking process and who will have poorer results? Why those nice people learning new skills, of course. Have people be less productive so they can learn a new job skill, then nail them with forced ranking and increase their risk of layoff or a poor job performance rating.

If I were that employee, I’d be looking for the sweet spot of my job skills so I could be the biggest producer of results on the team. I wouldn’t learn any new job skills to help everyone out on the team, but, hey, you not only don’t reward people for doing that; you punish them instead. That works.

In the end, people want to produce results — and want respect

If your company says that it values employees so much, let’s see that translate into how their performance is measured. Let’s see how employees are actually valued. Force ranking employees ignores their diverse talents, ignores their willingness to learn and encourages them to not work well together. It is the precise internal, competitive environment where office politics can disturbingly insert itself into your corporate experience and invite the worst that people can bring to their jobs.

Working with employees requires system thinking. Input celebration of diverse talent and get results, or, input people to a faceless, force ranked list and get office politics at its worst.

Your choice.

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About the Author

Scot Herrick is the author of “I’ve Landed My Dream Job–Now What???” and owner of Cube Rules, LLC. Scot has a long history of management and individual contribution in multiple Fortune 100 corporations.