Stack Ranking Is From The Pit of Hell – (Well it’s at least un-American) By Tom D.

rank-and-yank-hrA remarkable and even beautiful by-product of human failure is the capacity of the individual to repent, reform and rebound. Yet many of us don’t just rebound to some former status-quo, but each of us has the potential to blow through our prior state of performance and achieve excellence.

I know a woman who dropped out of first grade. When she was well into adulthood, she achieved her GED, and eventually ended up with a PhD in the biological sciences. Over time she went on to become the Vice Provost and a Professor of a major university. “It can only happen in America”, is more than a slogan in her case. This really only could happen here!

Some have suggested that the United States is the world’s only true “second chance” society. I would challenge the legitimacy of this assertion because in my opinion, we are not just a second chance society, but failed folks are given third and fourth chances or more! In most parts of the world, if you show a lack of academic proficiency at some critical juncture in your life, you are destined and limited at best to a trade or blue collar career. And of course there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a trade, unless it’s not what you choose; and you believe you’re capable of doing many other things. However in other countries, the doors to those options are virtually locked. In the US you can fail middle school, become a carpenter or bus driver for the next 20 years; and yet there are still multiple routes to achieve a PhD at MIT; a law degree at Harvard, or become CEO of a large corporation. This uniquely American phenomenon is sloppy, chaotic and often times unproductive; however it is the essence of the right to the “Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness” DNA which our founding fathers endowed in us. In my opinion it’s what makes us the greatest and most free society in world history.

So what does this have to do with stack ranking, and what is stack ranking anyhow? According to Forbes Magazine, it means that “employees are ranked from best to worst forcing their managers to make hard choices”. This sounds fairly innocuous, and by itself it seems fair, except when the hard choices are formula based. As in, an immediate termination and replacement for the bottom 10% percent of the ranked employees. So much for second chances!

Having personally managed hundreds of sales, administrative, technical and training professionals throughout my career, I have often witnessed many under-performers eventually become exceptional. In one company where I was a manager, I had a young woman working for me who was rated dead last by group of managers within a very large sales peer-group. And to no one’s surprise, she had a few rocky months. I began to wonder if I did indeed need to make a change, but gradually she improved. Twenty years later, she was receiving an award for being that company’s all-time leading sales professional. Under the more rigid versions of stack ranking, we would have jettisoned her early on, and I’m sure we would have replaced her many times over with less worthy performers

I’m not suggesting that we never fire anyone who we believe to be under-performing. What I am instead asserting, is that we not be arbitrary in making those delicate and mission-critical personnel decisions. Management by stack ranking is the epitome of being arbitrary. It’s also very unprofessional. Managers should make decisions based on a variety of factors based on personal involvement with their “underlings”, and not just whack off the bottom 10% or so, based on some cold, statistical criterion.

I’ve known managers who try to be completely “metrics”- based in their decision making. I cannot name one that was any good, nor sustained any success with their teams. However, I do know managers who are involved and communicate with the people who report to them as often as possible. They understand their strengths and weaknesses, where they are growing, and where they are not. When they see weaknesses, their job is to coach, mentor and lead by example. They are professional managers, not bean-counters who hover over a spreadsheet and “right-click and delete” anything that looks troublesome. These are the managers who usually experience consistent, long-term success.

Some would call stack ranking lazy. Some would call it insidious. I believe just its un-American. Someday when SkyNet takes over and we all live in the Matrix, then robots and supercomputers will have no other way than a “binary” way to make difficult decisions. Until then, my suggestion is that we use our eyes, minds, hearts and even some metrics; and manage like professionals, not like machines.

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