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Adam Grant says managers don’t know how to evaluate employee performance in a remote workforce. He’s teaming up with BetterUp to provide guidance

October 4, 2022, 12:05 PM UTC
Adam Grant
Adam Grant, pictured in July 2022, says its time for leaders to rethink how they judge employee performance.
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Good morning!

There’s an ugly truth that HR leaders are slowly coming to terms with: Managers don’t know how to measure performance in our new world of work. 

It’s an emerging knowledge gap that renowned organizational psychologist Adam Grant is determined to help close and one that will become priority No. 1 in his expanded work with BetterUp. 

Today, the coaching platform announced the appointment of Grant as chairman of its newly launched Center for Purpose and Performance. The center will produce research on employee performance and partner with industry leaders and scientists to provide a deeper understanding of well-being and purpose at work. In other words, HR leaders can expect to see a lot more research to help redefine what it means to be a high performer. 

“Employers are realizing what folks like Adam and the scientific community have been saying all along—employees are at their best, and they do their best work when they’re finding purpose and meaning in that work,” says Alexi Robichaux, cofounder and CEO of BetterUp.

While there’s an abundance of literature on high-performing workforces, Robichaux says there’s a dearth of guidance on how to elicit said results. The new center, chaired by Grant, will be tasked with bridging that gap and providing new insights on how to evaluate workers effectively.

“One of the things that drive me mad right now is the number of jobs, and frankly sectors, where managers don’t even know how to measure performance,” says Grant. “I can’t count the number of Silicon Valley companies that I’ve worked with, for example, where they say, ‘I have no idea how to objectively measure whether an engineer is productive or effective.’ That’s sort of the lifeblood of your product development.”

The shift to dispersed work is also pushing HR leaders and managers to rethink the way they go about evaluating employees. Companies have historically relied on ratings from managers to determine employee performance. But managers can only rate what they can see, Grant says. “That’s one of the reasons that we’re seeing so much pressure for people to come back to the office full-time even though, empirically, we know it’s not necessary or effective.” 

Managers, he says, have become dependent on in-person face time to judge performance and tend to treat in-office work as a proxy for high engagement and performance. That’s a mistake, Grant warns.

“We need to radically rethink that. We need better ways to measure performance, [and] we need better tools for managers to know what good performance looks like so you can trust that people are doing great work, even if you don’t happen to sit in the same room with them every day.”

This might lead one to ask whether it’s time to throw out key performance indicators. Grant says no—although it might be tempting. Instead, he says HR leaders need to supplement individual KPIs with collaborative KPIs that reflect the larger workforce. Employers should put more value on three metrics in particular: knowledge sharing, mentorship of junior workers, and helpfulness and problem-solving. 

“I would ask [CHROs] what are the behaviors that people engage in that elevate others? And how do you make sure you measure those and value those to the same degree that you do individual KPIs?” Grant says. 

These are the questions he believes will redefine effective performance and, ultimately, our understanding of management. 

“What if we could rethink management and use evidence to help managers improve performance along with quality of life? I think that’s something we need in the world right now,” he says.

Amber Burton
amber.burton@fortune.com
@amberbburton

Reporter's Notebook

The most compelling data, quotes, and insights from the field.

Tim Cook shared his secret sauce for identifying top talent at Apple. In a speech at Italy's University of Naples Federico II, he told students that he seeks four traits in new hires: collaboration, creativity, curiosity, and expertise.

“[We look for] somebody that will kind of walk around the problem and look at it from different angles and use their creative juices to come up with solutions,” he said. And when it comes to curiosity, Cook believes there are no dumb questions. “It’s amazing when somebody starts to ask questions as a kid would, how it puts pressure on the person to think through the answers really deeply. And so we look for this innate curiosity in people.”

Around the Table

- Disabled Americans, who've become employed at record numbers since the start of the pandemic, joined the labor force at faster rates than non-disabled Americans last month. Bloomberg

- Several companies have launched programs to help funnel low-income workers into the middle class. Their initiatives could serve as a blueprint for others. (Read more: Inside Chipotle's mission to become the 'fastest path to the middle class'New York Times

- Australian airline Qantas asked more than 100 executives to work as baggage handlers amid a shortage of airport personnel. Senior staff who accept the temporary reassignment will not be expected to carry out their ground handler duties on top of their full-time roles. CNN

- A shellfish farming company in Washington state used to be able to fill vacant roles in just a few weeks. Now it can take up to four months due to a remarkably tight labor market. Guardian

- If companies want to hire formerly incarcerated individuals, they should employ a true “second-chance model” that provides workers with specialized resources, like counseling, mentorship programs, and legal support, to avoid recidivism. Harvard Business Review

Roll Call

The latest in HR executive moves. 

CITGO Petroleum Corporation appointed Kresha Sivinski vice president of human resources and support services. Contact lens retailer 1-800 Contacts named Angie Balfour chief people officer. Enterprise software company Tricentis appointed Jen Lucas chief people officer. 

Have a move? Let me know: amber.burton@fortune.com

Watercooler

Everything you need to know from Fortune

'Bleisure' trip. Employers can make business travel less stressful by allowing employees to bring their families on trips. It’s a concept known as “bleisure.” —Sophie Mellor

Sandwich generation. Companies that best support women in the sandwich generation—caring for both young children and aging parents—provide tangible benefits like subsidized child care and a supportive company culture. —Megan Leonhardt

Middle management squeeze. Managers are feeling pressure from both ends as they struggle to balance their employees' flexibility needs with upper management’s return-to-office-mandates. —Chloe Berger

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