On his faculty profile at Wharton’s management department, the first qualification that Adam Grant lists is not his work with Goldman Sachs and the United Nations, his Oprah-endorsed bestselling book highest-rated full professor.
That’s consistent with Grant’s argument that the way we measure and reward achievement is all wrong. His book, which is being translated into dozens of languages and has been named one of the best books of 2013 by several outlets, focuses on how mentorship, generosity and helpfulness are a better path to success than trying to come out ahead in every interaction—which Grant calls “taking” behavior.
Most companies measure performance based on individual accomplishments. But that system doesn’t reward people for a lot of essential behind-the-scenes work. And it can reward people that either take credit for others’ work, or are better at showing off than working. The traditional approach sometimes advances the wrong people, and can end up hurting companies, Grant argues.
We recently spoke to Grant about his next steps, the future of data in the workplace, and why companies should have employees draw pictures. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Quartz: Has the response to the book given you any ideas for future research?
Grant: One of the research directions I’m most excited about is how you develop a reward system that actually allows givers to rise. It’s not surprising that most organizations, when they give performance evaluations, compensation, and promotions, they focus on individual accomplishments. That’s the easiest thing to measure. One of the things that I’ve become increasingly aware of is that if you want givers to gain status and responsibility, you have to track and measure not just what they achieve, but also how those achievements affect other people. I think there are a variety of ways of doing this that I’d like to study.
One comes from some work I did with Johnson and Johnson. The CEO, Alex Gorsky, is fond of asking the question of senior leader candidates, “can you tell me of four people whose careers you made better?” That’s a really significant consideration when you’re looking at who you are going to promote into positions of authority. They want to look for people who weren’t just laser-focused on producing their own results, but who have actually gone out of their way to mentor other people. I’d love to study how you best track your contributions as a mentor.
Quartz: You probably get a ton of email and requests for help. How do you stay on-task?
Grant: I probably don’t do anything that falls into the realm of rocket science here. My inbox and a Word document are my to-do list, basically. When something is extra important or time-sensitive, it ends up in both places. And I’ll put in repeating task reminders in my calendar when I have stuff due.
Maybe this is unique to my job because I don’t have a boss, but what I find most helpful is to tell people that when something’s due, to ping me a day or two before and remind me of a deadline. That way it’ll be salient. When I’m in a meeting I’ll be thinking about that task if the meeting doesn’t require my full attention, when I’m walking or driving somewhere, and it’ll also be in my inbox and that way I’ll know it’s coming up. It also gives it a legitimacy to others, to feel like they’re not harassing me.
Quartz: Are there better ways to do research inside of companies?
Grant: I would love to see some research that looks like an idea from Lance Sandelands, who’s a professor at Michigan. One of Lance’s observations is that we lose a lot of information when we have people fill out a survey. A lot of the rich experience that we have at work, it’s pretty hard to convert into a number or rating.
Some organizations try to solve this problem by giving people open-ended questions where they write about their experience. But you end up with just mountains of data and its hard to code them and figure out how to analyze it. You end up in a position where maybe you use a few quotes, but you’re mostly trying to convert qualitative information into numbers. Lance’s idea, which I think is brilliant, is: Let’s say you want to figure out how engaged an employee is or what the quality of their work life is. Try asking an employee to draw a picture of their job.
I’ve done this a few times. It’s a different window into how people experience their jobs. You get some really very interesting things that nobody would ever say or think to say. When you engage the right brain and ask them to come up with an image of what their job is like, it’s pretty revealing. You can do the same thing if you’re trying to assess an organization’s culture, ask them to draw a picture of their culture. This is the kind of creative approach that more organizations should try out.
Quartz: What’s next for you? Another book, more research, or more work with companies?
Grant: Can I say all three? Then I will. Something I’m really excited about is that Wharton recently hosted our first People Analytics Conference. It drew together this extraordinary group of people from all kinds of organizations serious about bringing data to people decisions.
It gave me the idea for research or possibly a next book, that we need more evidence of how to do people analytics well. Particularly on the creative side. We know how to run predictive models. We know how to do good statistical analysis and find what managers have a disproportionate impact. What we don’t know is how you figure out, when you’re running your predictive model, what traits to measure in the first place. We all know conscientiousness and grit can be really useful. But what else should we be looking for, and how do we find it? That’s going to be really interesting.