Via Teresa Nielsen Hayden, a smart overview and response to an
upcoming recent Vanity Fair article about Microsoft’s “lost decade”. The main culprit, according to the article, was apparently the rigid use of “stack ranking” in assessing the work of teams and groups, requiring a manager to rank the work of individuals within a group according to fixed percentages: a small number “excellent”, a large number “adequate”, a small number “poor” (with the bottom-ranking members usually terminated).
It looks as if the article (and some of the excellent supporting links that Nielsen Hayden assembles) will document that this especially rigid use of stack ranking drove off some of Microsoft’s best employees, and that managers dreaded it as much as the people they were evaluating. Nielsen Hayden rightly points out that if you spend a lot of time and effort assembling the best team possible, the last thing you want is to be saddled with a mechanical, rigid evaluation system that will force you to shuck off part of that team and to passively insult the bulk of the remaining members by ranking them as “average”.
Like Nielsen Hayden, the comparison to other grading and evaluation schemes jumps out at me immediately. I’ve always viscerally disliked the concept of “grading to the curve”, found it morally dubious and distasteful. This is just empirical evidence that this approach doesn’t even achieve its own goals of cultivating and refining excellence. What I find especially wrong-headed is forcing students or employees to conform to a pre-determined distribution of performance when the group of students or employees who are being evaluated are the outcome of a prior process of intense selectivity. If you’ve spent considerable resources trying to hire the best employees or admit the best students, forcing some of them to fail simply because you believe in a “normal distribution” there should be failures is a confession that all your efforts at prior selectivity are a waste of time. It’s using a technical device as a cover for a mule-headed moral belief that even under the best circumstances with the best people, someone should fail, and most people should be simply adequate.
That’s the kind of hidden ideology that feeds into the abuse of meritocratic privilege that Christopher Hayes has dissected recently. This approach allows an entrenched elite to believe that it is the entitled outcome of relentless sifting and to ignore the systematic outcomes of such sifting to overall institutions, communities or organizations–or the overall society. If you keep having to shift the goals in order to ensure that real excellence is always achievable by only a small percentage, you completely lose sight of what the general outcome or goal of a class, a discipline, a workplace team actually is. The curve becomes the goal.
Grading is always unfair in some respect. But a curve is not a prophylactic against being arbitrary or having to make sensitive evaluations on an individual basis. It just transfers the weight of arbitrary judgment to a mechanism, outsources evaluation to a positive feedback loop that will inevitably push the entire system to a point of breakdown.