Performance Reviews Require Calibration

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

May 15

In the end, if we all make our goals and are extremely competent, we won’t get the same ratings. No group can be “Outstanding”  down the line.

We must go through “calibration.”

Calibration consists of two separate, but equal challenges.

First, each manager must rank each person from top to bottom in their group.

Second, each manager must rank their people and the people from like groups within the department.

If there are 10 people in your group, there is a ranking from one through ten — even if each person is ranked outstanding.

Then, this ranking is taken to another manager or group of managers and their group is included in the overall group. Now 30-people are  in the total group, and the group is ranked 1-30 — even if every person is ranked outstanding from the perspective of their goal attainment.

Calibration is where all talent, regardless of performance, is put into a ranking of best to worst. If all people on your team are outstanding, it doesn’t matter; they are ranked from best to worst.

Then, they are thrown into a bigger group and ranked again.

Truth be told, I am conflicted about calibration. One the one hand, I appreciate the fact that one manager can’t simply rank their team as all “outstanding” when each person on their team really isn’t.

On the other hand, the forced ranking — the same one used in layoffs — tends to downgrade the ranking (and pay increases and bonuses) of outstanding teams. There is simply too much pressure to force the rankings to accommodate other manager’s teams.

And if you are “on the bubble” — a person who could be ranked one way or another — calibration will more likely force you to the lower ranking.

As well, if your manager doesn’t have good information to defend your ranking from a results viewpoint, the probability that you will be ranked well decreases.


As you can see, I am conflicted about calibration. As a manager, I always went in every calibration session with “results” oriented information to defend my ratings and rankings of my people. I appreciated the ability to knock down the rankings of other groups whose manager thought they walked on water but delivered little.

Yet, good people got ranked lower — and their rating (salary increase and bonus) dropped because of the intense pressure of letting the other manager give their due to their people that you didn’t know as well.

Working in a cube means that you need to understand the calibration process. You need to provide your manager good information to defend your realm of accomplishments. And hope that your manager is good in these sessions to get you your deserved ranking.

But the end result of calibration is that it forces the workforce into a “bell curve” of accomplishment. No matter the accomplishment, some people are in the bottom 15% and not getting a bonus or salary increase. Or are gone.

People who get a “meets expectations” often exceeded their goals and deserved more but don’t get the rating because of the ranking and calibration process.

The bottom line is that if you are a results oriented business and you totally exceed your goals, you most likely will be calibrated to some sort of average.

Having a killer year doesn’t mean getting a killer bonus and salary increase. It’s instead “calibrated” to an average, killing your engagement.

I love calibration. I hate calibration. There’s no way to win.

  • Scot Herrick says:

    And that’s precisely why I’m so conflicted about calibration. It’s a force — implied or not — to an average.

    Good comment. Thanks for taking the time to make it.

  • Anonymous says:

    Calibration is pretty much a disaster. In Senge’s terms, it’s an implicit goal limiting growth. As an organization, you want to inspire managers to develop and hire the best team they possibly can. But calibration creates a powerful incentive to have a team that matches that bell curve.

    The fascinating part to me is that a lot of organizations don’t even have to enforce the bell curve, at any level. The existing forces all act in perfect concert so people create it on their own. Now you have even managers of small groups trying to match the curve. Which means as a manager, life is easier for you if you have a few low performers in your group. If you have all high performers, you will have to fight and justify like hell to get them all above average ratings; it may even be an impossible fight to win depending on your clout with a couple of management levels above you.

    The path of least resistance is to have a low performer or two; a couple of people you can give low ratings too and easily justify to yourself and them. Not that I think people do this consciously, but this type of implicit goal can become very powerful and many will never realize it.

    A really great manager can keep things balanced even in the face of calibration, but average ones can not properly reward the right people consistently. I’d also have my really great managers focusing on other things, rather than learning how to game the system just so they can reward the right people. Calibration definitely solves a problem, but the cure is worse than the disease.

  • […] as an aside, is one of the downsides of calibration. Moving a person from “meets objectives” to “needs improvement” – and taking their raise […]

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