David Starling, IT Manager and unlikely hero of this story, felt that the monthly Operations Meeting seemed to be coming around quicker and quicker, while his development as an IT Manager wasn’t moving forward at all. He was in a meeting room again, surrounded by his peers, and waiting for Brenda de la Rue to arrive so that the meeting could get started.
Finally Brenda flew into the room like a tornado.
“Maddy!” she shouted at her assistant, as she bounded to the seat that Maddy had reserved next to her, “We don’t have time for that introduction stuff this month, I vaguely remember putting down something important on the agenda. What was it?”
Maddy looked at her laptop screen, “It says ‘Bring Out Your Dead'”.
“Working title.”, corrected Brenda, “I remember now. I need heads on spikes, what have you all got for me? Its appraisal time. Bell curve the fuck out of it people.”
Some of those in the room looked confused, including Dave.
Brenda sought to clarify. “For you newbies, let me make it clear. At appraisal time, we chop down the tall poppies and stomp on the weeds.”
Fiona Foil, Head of HR, nodded enthusiastically.
Dave raised his hand cautiously, knowing that he could only get away with a couple of questions based upon being new to this.
“WHAT!” Brenda whispered.
“What did you mean by bell curve?”
“Fool!” Brenda gushed, before Maddy tapped her on the leg, to remind her that she was on her second strike for humiliating people in meetings. “I mean, what a good question. We run a system of assessing people, that goes from 1 (pot plant) up to 5 (administrative error). The bulk of the staff get a 3, with some getting higher or lower as encouragement…” Fiona Foil almost choked with laugher at this comment, “…encouragement to improve, or in the rare case of 4’s, encouragement to continue doing good work.”
Brenda paused, then turned angrily on Dave and asked him directly, “How don’t you know this already?”
“I do. The voice over guy made me ask the question so everyone else would know too. Haven’t you seen a bad TV series before? 1 to 5. 1 bad, 5 good. With everyone clumped in the middle. Got it.”
“Fucking stock photos.” Brenda mumbled under her breath.
“I’ve got some solid 3’s in my team.” Timothy Useful said proudly.
Brenda snarled at him, “I don’t give a fuck about the participation awards, give me some awful, useless bastards so we can hang them from the castle wall as a warning to others. Oh, and a few high achievers, but not too many, they make everyone heave.”
Dave followed up with his boss, Flux Larson after the meeting.
“What was that about? How does this bell curve thing work?”
“It’s a management skill to be able to rate your staff and make life shit for stupid people. In order to be seen as a good manager, you need to rate some people high and some low.”
“But you don’t do that?”
“Of course not, I’m a human being. But when I am pretending to be a manager, I also pretend that I am doing that. I tell Brenda that I am making people cry on a daily basis. How would I be here otherwise?”
“Don’t we espouse core values of growth and personal development?”
“Yes, and honesty and valuing our customers.”
“Good point.” replied Dave, “So basically, as a manager we are supposed to squash our employees and make their life shit, with few exceptions?”
“Lesson One.” Justina Goose added, having listened in for far too long in secret. “Managers are judged on how they crap on their staff when they have problems.”
“Correction.” said Flux, “If they don’t have problems, you need to invent them.”
“But you always need a few standouts.” offered Justina, “It has to be balanced. You need a few superstars as well.”
“Where do I get them from?” Dave asked, thinking specifically about Barry McGuigan.
“Oh, Dave.” Flux said, “You can’t get them from anywhere. If you bring in a 5 or even a solid 4, you won’t get any credit for it. You need to turn clay into a sculpture.”
“True, unless the person you bring in was a good poach.” Justina interrupted.
“Of course. A good poach makes your team look like the team that the cool kids want to work for. That always works. Otherwise, it is about talking up someone vaguely average at Career Board, but mostly about showing them how you treat your team like rowers on a Roman Emperor’s water ski trip.”
Dave had a sudden realisation. “So, as a manager, I don’t actually want to improve my staff, just how I am perceived?”
Flux and Justina laughed for nearly fifteen minutes.
Eventually Flux calmed down. “The lifeblood of your team is your poor performers. That shows how good a manager you are. Why do you think Barry McGuigan still has a job? He’s been a 1 for four years in a row.”
“So what happens if I lose a 1 or a 2?”
“You need an immediate replacement.” replied Justina, “They are your most valuable resource. If you are unlucky enough to lose one, you need to get another straight away. They aren’t even freely available on the transfer market. Your chances of getting a 1 versus a 5 on the current bookie ratings are twelve-to-one. Rare as hen’s teeth.”
Dave suddenly realised for the first time, how valuable Barry McGuigan was going to be to his future as an IT Manager.