Not All Nonnormal Distributions Are Created Equal: Improved Theoretical and Measurement Precision

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Abstract

We offer a four-category taxonomy of individual output distributions (i.e., distributions of cumulative results): (1) pure power law; (2) lognormal; (3) exponential tail (including exponential and power law with an exponential cutoff); and (4) symmetric or potentially symmetric (including normal, Poisson, and Weibull). The four categories are uniquely associated with mutually exclusive generative mechanisms: self-organized criticality, proportionate differentiation, incremental differentiation, and homogenization. We then introduce distribution pitting, a falsification-based method for comparing distributions to assess how well each one fits a given data set. In doing so, we also introduce decision rules to determine the likely dominant shape and generative mechanism among many that may operate concurrently. Next, we implement distribution pitting using 229 samples of individual output for several occupations (e.g., movie directors, writers, musicians, athletes, bank tellers, call center employees, grocery checkers, electrical fixture assemblers, and wirers). Results suggest that for 75% of our samples, exponential tail distributions and their generative mechanism (i.e., incremental differentiation) likely constitute the dominant distribution shape and explanation of nonnormally distributed individual output. This finding challenges past conclusions indicating the pervasiveness of other types of distributions and their generative mechanisms. Our results further contribute to theory by offering premises about the link between past and future individual output. For future research, our taxonomy and methodology can be used to pit distributions of other variables (e.g., organizational citizenship behaviors). Finally, we offer practical insights on how to increase overall individual output and produce more top performers.

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