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May 8, 2023 2023-05 Business Administration Faculty Research in Education

New research finds adaptability key to employee performance

An increasingly hybrid workforce calls for a more nuanced approach to employee evaluations, according to new research from Oscar Ybarra, Gies professor of business administration. To address the problem, he has developed a new employee evaluation framework called C+MAC (Cognition + Motivation, Action and Connection).

“Performance should concentrate on adaptability and a broader interconnected skill set,” said Ybarra, whose study, “The Skills That Help Employees Adapt: Empirical Validation of a Four-Category Framework,” was recently published in the academic journal PLOS One. “Adaptability is a key driver in helping companies grow and meet goals. It’s especially important as strategies shift to meet changes in how we do business – from AI to online training and virtual meetings.”

McKinsey reports 58% of employees now have the opportunity to work from home one day a week and 35% have the option to work from home five days a week. This applies to every sector and region of the US. Ybarra (left), who teaches an advanced course on individual and team leadership, said the paper’s findings can also inform how higher education prepares students for today’s evolving business environment.

“Educators need to teach beyond technical expertise and address the broader skills that allow students to smartly position themselves and contribute to the workplace,” said Ybarra. “Right now, this is largely done piecemeal at universities and tends to give short shrift to valued characteristics like motivation and a bias towards action.”

Each of C+MAC’s four key areas distinguish six specific skills that ladder up to identify an employee’s adaptability and responsiveness:

Cognition -- Gathering, organizing, and processing information to understand and draw insights about the circumstances and come up with solutions to challenges and unexpected events. Skills include problem-solving, planning & reflection, expertise in a discipline or field of study, analytical and detail focus, quantitative and organizational ability.

Motivation – The ability to persist through obstacles, bounce back from failures, and engage in the work that needs to be done even when not of their choosing. Skills include intrinsic engagement, grit & work ethic, resilience, determination & purpose, dedication, and growth & mastery orientation.

Action Skills – Generating ideas and taking action to execute and test them, as well as leading efforts for change and influencing others through the results of one’s tests. Skills include leadership, influence, behavioral flexibility, initiative & bias for action, creative & entrepreneurial, and execution.

Connections – Social skills are of growing importance because large tasks and goals depend on different people working well together, plus coordinating and managing conflict when it arises. Skills include oral and written communication, social tact, empathy, relational, intercultural, and collaboration & teamwork

The framework can be used as part of a 360-degree review process or as a stand-alone assessment.

“During the pandemic, many employers relied on metrics that, at best, tangentially relate to superior performance – hours spent on computer, how often a mouse moves, or how many reports produced,” said Ybarra. “These types of evaluation tools raise concerns and create challenges; they don’t address employee development, and they reinforce a power differential that can be de-motivating.”

He added that current employee evaluations don’t give managers a sense of how employees are progressing on their portfolio of work or consider that most people don’t work solely on one task, but on different projects with different tasks and different people.

“C+MAC goes beyond measuring performance on largely whether an employee is smart and personable,” said Ybarra. “This framework can be used to combine performance reviews with professional development, integrating feedback, and providing specific steps for improving how an employee approaches their work.”

Ybarra added that C+MAC can become a tool for motivating employees and generating loyalty by investing in the adaptability training and the well-rounded feedback they need to be successful.

To teach adaptability-related skills in his classroom, Ybarra asks students to conduct a 360-degree assessment – for many of them it’s their first – to evaluate themselves and how others view their strengths and weaknesses. They write a personal report, then work as a group to either identify which coursework or campus experiences contribute to learning skills in these for areas or to build a resource for incoming students that recommends courses, experiences, and registered student organizations that can contribute to learning these skills. For extra credit, they assess experiences they've had in classes at Gies that cultivate C+MAC skills.

“Ultimately, this framework creates a way for students to stand out and tell their learning journey in a compelling way that will resonate with future employers who increasingly value adaptability, said Ybarra. “It also can provide insights to faculty about how to adjust their syllabi to teach these skills, show how they’re inter-related, and keep students motivated to seek out opportunities to practice becoming proficient at them.”