The Performance Curve

This week I spent some time working with a group of long term employees from more than ten organizations from the same region.  The primary topic of discussion centered on how short as well as long term performance could be improved.  Suggestions centered on increasing workplace flexibility, rewarding more effectively those that go above and beyond, hiring better employees, placing better leaders over teams, and increasing employee engagement.  Several employees with more than thirty years of work experience asked how those initiatives might vary in effectiveness depending on the generation or point in the career of the employee.

Although there is a large amount of research that addresses generational differences in needs, work expectations, and ideal working conditions, there is an insufficient amount of historical data as of yet to determine what a generation x or y employee will be like in the later years of their careers.  Analysis of how performance changes over the course of a career has been examined in more detail.  Organizational Psychology has a name for how performance levels change over time: dynamic criteria.  A good example of dynamic criteria research appears in a 1997 Journal of Management article by Deadrick, Bennett, and Russell.  The article analyzed sewing machine operators and found that experience, cognitive ability, and skills or abilities all impacted performance with the same worker and between workers.  Moreover, as expected, individual performance changed over time for most employees in the sample.

During the discussion with the managers, it became evident that all accepted that performance changes over time, but there was disagreement on trajectory.  There were three core viewpoints:

  • linear
  • peaking
  • sloping


A popular point of view is that over time an employee increases in knowledge and experience, thus increasing the performance of the employee.  Consequently, a new employee possesses the lowest level of performance and peaks near retirement when the employee possesses the highest level of experience.


Another large group subscribes to the idea that an employee increases in competence during the early years of his or her career to reach a peak in performance sometime between full competence (five to seven years) and the ten and fifteen year mark. After an employee reaches the “full performance” point, the combination of older skills, work stress, and general fatigue begin to reduce the level of performance across all categories of performers.


The sloping view is similar to peaking, but has a more gradual growth and decline than the peaking explanation.  An employee starts off and over the course of seven to thirteen years reaches his or her performance peak to gradually lose interest, capability, and engagement over time.

What have you encountered in your organization? From my experience, I find that the job or occupation, personality type of the employee, and initial motivation and capability relate closely with to the employee’s trajectory.  In the next post, we will examine some recent data to find out which is more applicable to describing the results among 400 workers in the technology industry.

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