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Leading for purpose and performance: Insights from The Collaborative

December 13, 2023 - 14 min read
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    At The Center for Purpose and Performance's inaugural event, aptly named "The Collaborative," luminaries from academia and industry came together to explore the intersection of purpose and performance in the workplace. 

    The day focused on diving deep into the following topics: 

    • Rethink purpose and performance
    • Revolutionize management’s relationship to machines
    • Reimagine cultures of inclusion and well-being

    The Center for Purpose and Performance, founded in 2022 and chaired by Adam Grant, is catalyzing research and aligning researchers around a broader vision, collecting data across diverse organizations to better understand high-purpose and high-performance individuals and organizations.

    Anatomy of a high-performance organization

    The event kicked off with an insightful conversation between Tiffanie Boyd, SVP and chief people officer of McDonald's USA, Adam Grant, BetterUp Science Board member and the center’s chair, and Dr. Gabriella Kellerman, BetterUp’s chief innovation officer, as they explored the fundamental components of peak performance within an organization.

    • Constructing the core pillars of accountability and care
      People, workplace, and development are essential components of a high-performance infrastructure. Tiffanie Boyd described performance as getting people to take some level of action using their talent, knowledge, or skill to achieve a desired outcome. She stressed the crucial role of accountability mechanisms and a culture of care in fostering sustainable performance. 
    • Creating a culture where collective achievement is recognized
      Adam Grant challenged traditional notions of performance accountability. Instead, he advocates for an approach that involves holding individuals accountable not just for their performance but for uplifting those around them
      — like determining a promotion based on metrics measuring how individuals amplify the success of others.
    • The importance of framing feedback
      Grant shared that it starts with 19 words that can significantly enhance receptivity to constructive criticism:

    “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”

    This phrase reframes feedback as coaching and builds trust between managers and direct reports. This emphasizes the important role that managers can play as coaches.

    When considering performance management strategies, Grant commented on a few specific practices that are counterproductive. “We should throw away the feedback sandwich. It does not taste as good as it looks.” What should managers do instead? Provide real-time feedback to their direct reports rather than surprise them with feedback during performance reviews. If employees are caught off guard by feedback during the review, it indicates a flawed feedback loop.

    “It is surprisingly easy to hear a hard truth from somebody who believes in your potential and cares about your well-being.”

     Adam Grant

    01_Anatomy_Ink Factory_Web (1)


    GenAI's impact on trust in the workplace

    Jeff Hancock, professor of communication at Stanford University, explored the impact of generative AI on trust in the workplace. 

    Trust in the workplace was defined as “confidence in our expectations.” When considering the success of AI in the workplace, Hancock described a balanced equation. On one side lies the technology — AI and its development — while on the other side is our human psychology. The majority of discussions and debates are focused on the technological elements, and the often-overlooked component is how we think about AI and relate to it.

    • Folk theories: Making sense of the unknown
      Folk theories are the narratives we construct to make sense of complex phenomena. In the context of AI, understanding and collecting employees' folk theories is crucial. These intuitive beliefs act as lenses through which individuals perceive and interact with technology. Understanding and acknowledging their perceptions about AI can help organizations make decisions and communicate changes.
    • AI Mindsets
      Mindsets play a pivotal role in how individuals perceive and interact with AI and have two main characteristics: 
      • Agency: Do you feel like AI is under your control, or do you feel it's controlling you in that you are dependent on it? 
      • Valence: Is AI good, or is it detrimental? When positioned as a tool that doesn't replace people but augments people's uniquely human skills, leaders can foster trust and encourage people to experiment with AI.
    • Extending our human capabilities  
      Framing AI as an extension of human capabilities offers a positive perspective, emphasizing its role to enhance people rather than replace or mimic them. AI extensions provide constant accessibility, non-judgmental support, and all-angle insights based on extensive knowledge. A recent experiment conducted by BetterUp Labs in collaboration with the Stanford Social Media Lab demonstrated that framing AI as non-judgmental and experienced in role-playing significantly improved individuals' preparedness for difficult conversations.

    Deep Dive 1 Gen AI (1)

    Reimagining DEI initiatives through ideals, impact, and investment

    Quinetta Roberson, professor of management and psychology at Michigan State University and BetterUp Science Board Member, discussed how DEI initiatives often fail because they lack three imperative elements. The keys to success were identified as differences in ideals, intended impact, and investment.

    • Ideals: Organizations need to define their philosophy and answer, “What is the value of diversity in your organization?” Some companies view it through the lens of necessary compliance or market opportunity, while others see the benefit of integrating diverse perspectives to improve organizational functioning.

    “Some companies see a benefit to organizational functioning. And, for those companies the focus becomes on integrating the diverse perspectives in their organization to improve operations and to improve the functioning of the organization.”

    • Impact: Success in DEI initiatives is closely tied to what organizations aim to achieve through diversity. Whether focusing on personal, operational, systemic, or symbolic change, the end game must be clearly defined.

    “It’s all about change. What kind of change are you interested in?”

    • Investment: Acknowledging that DEI work is challenging, Roberson stressed the importance of time, resources, and organizational commitment. To achieve success, organizations need to build practices and policies along with organizational capabilities, leveraging diversity for improved performance.

    “How do we leverage our diversity in order to be better, faster, stronger — better at problem-solving, innovation, and creativity?”

    By focusing on these three aspects, organizations can navigate the complexities of DEI initiatives, avoid common pitfalls, and ensure that their efforts create meaningful and lasting change.

    Deep Dive 2 DEI

    Mindsets for high-performing teams

    Harvard Business School professor Dr. Amy C. Edmondson looked at the critical role of psychological safety in building effective teams. 

    “Psychological, safety isn't the goal — it is a means to a goal. There are many goals: DEI success, innovation, quality improvement, profitability, growth… But whatever goal is top of mind, you can draw a line toward that goal through psychological safety.”

    In a world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA), effective teamwork is essential for success. As defined by Edmondson, psychological safety is not about being nice but creating a context where interpersonal risks — speaking up with ideas, questions, or admitting mistakes — are encouraged. This belief in a safe environment for candor is crucial for team learning, effectiveness, and, ultimately, performance.

    “Study after study shows that team psychological safety predicts team performance.”

    The core of building high-performing teams lies in fostering high-quality conversations. Edmondson identifies three key attributes of these conversations: framing the work, inviting participation, and responding productively.

    • Framing the work means explicitly calling attention to areas of complex work that require "all brains in the game.”
    • Inviting participation means being proactive, asking good questions, and reinforcing the message that every voice matters.
    • Responding productively is about de-stigmatizing failure. It is appreciative and forward-looking — “What will you do to respond appreciatively and constructively to whatever happens?”

    To foster psychological safety, Edmondson encourages leaders to check in on the following: good news (green) versus bad news (red), agreement versus disagreement, and progress versus problems. If you are only hearing the green, then it’s time to “dig in with curiosity and care” because likely issues are being swept under the rug.

    Deep Dive 3 Psych Safety

    Leading for purpose and performance

    In the closing fireside chat, Adam Grant and Alexi Robichaux, BetterUp CEO and co-founder, explored the intricacies of purpose and performance.

    In exploring actionable ways for leaders to implement purpose-driven practices in the workplace, they included the following tools:

    • Personal highlight reelStudies have shown that having the opportunity to showcase accomplishments and strengths can lead to greater employee performance and retention. 
    • Mattering Maps — Referenced in the book Tomorrowmind, co-authored by BetterUp’s Chief Innovation Officer, Gabriella Kellerman, and BetterUp Science Board Member, Dr. Martin Seligman, a Mattering Map is a tool that managers can use to show an employee how their work contributes to the larger goals of the organization, helping employees feel that they matter by showing exactly where they are adding value.
    • Connecting employees with customer storiesHelping others is one of the strongest drivers of purpose. If a beneficiary, customer, client, or end user gives a personal testimonial, employees are more diligent and productive. 

    “Look at all of the jobs your employees do and ask if each of those jobs didn't exist, who would be worse off? The people that you come up with, their stories, their faces, their names, need to be known and shared in the organization.”

     Adam Grant

    03_Leading_Ink Factory_Web (3)

    Advancing the future of purpose and performance at work

    BetterUp created The Center for Purpose and Performance to facilitate bold conversations with leading practitioners and use science to develop tools and practices that improve the quality of life and work. The Collaborative emphasized the importance of aligning research to practice to advance high purpose and high performance within individuals and organizations. With accountability and care, effective feedback strategies, and more intentional workplace practices, every organization can foster purpose and performance within its people.


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    Visual note illustrations provided by Ink Factory.

    Published December 13, 2023

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