Rethinking Performance Management: Areas of Focus for a Hybrid Work Environment

Posted on Tuesday, September 20th, 2022 at 11:03 AM    

In September 2022, we convened a roundtable for leaders to discuss how organizations should rethink their performance management practices within a hybrid work environment. This session was part of our ongoing study on modern performance management.

Thank you to all who participated, shared your experiences, and learned from one another!

The state of work

We started the discussion by setting a context around

  • Changing employee expectations
  • The struggles faced by managers
  • Falling employee engagement levels
  • The continuing challenges around retention and turnover

We shared our latest research on the topic, using our framework to help organizations think about performance management for a hybrid work environment—the “3C” framework.

Organizations should focus on culture, capability of managers, and connection.

Figure 1: The “3C” model for performance management in a hybrid work environment | RedThread Research, 2022

The overall discussion resulted in rich insights. To help understand how organizations should rethink performance management as they build long-term hybrid work policies, we focused on 3 areas:

  • Culture: What is the role of culture in enabling employee performance in a hybrid work environment? How should organizations rethink their culture?
  • Connection: What’s the role of connection between managers and employees in driving performance in a hybrid workplace? How can organizations enable such connections?
  • Capability of managers: How has the role of managers changed, now that they are enabling performance in a hybrid workplace? How can organizations support managers in this role?

Key Takeaways

The roundtable generated a number of insights we thought worth highlighting. Here are our top 4 takeaways.

Understand the “Why” behind your performance management

A major theme was that leaders need to understand the purpose behind their performance management practices. Participants agreed that it was important for organizations to go back to their value proposition and be clear about what kind of organization they want to be. As one participant explained,

“Culture is where you start—not something where you add. You have to start with what culture you are enabling and what process or system you use to enable that culture. So often we do it backwards.”

Participants also discussed the powerful role culture plays in reinforcing desired behaviors and mitigating those that are not. By designing performance management practices around the culture and values important to the organization, leaders can drive employee engagement, enable constructive feedback, and provide deeper meaning and understanding of what they do.

Individuals have just as much responsibility for managing performance as managers

The role of individuals in their own performance management was a topic that came up frequently. Participants shared that managers and individuals need to be on the same page about taking equal responsibility for driving performance. As one of the participants put it,

“The age-old notion that the ownership of performance lies solely with managers needs to change.”

Individuals should also be accountable for building their connections. Participants agreed that while an organization can help identify which critical connections need to be built, individuals are responsible for building them.

Connections need to be intentional

Participants shared how connections have become integral to performance management in a remote work environment. Several of them spoke about practices that they have adopted to make connection building a part of their performance management and, as a result, part of their overall culture.

One of the participants explained,

“When we’re remote we tend to go straight to work. We need to be more intentional about how we’re spending our time and how we’re connecting.”

One of the leaders shared that their organization has created accountability maps that identify and tag the people that an individual needs to know to be successful in their role.

Technology can help build connections, but cannot be a substitute for meaningful conversations

Participants shared how they are using technology to drive opportunities for connection. For example, one of the leaders is leveraging tools to nudge people to have regular 1:1s and remind leaders if too much time has passed since they last connected with employees. Organizational network analysis was shared as an example of technology that can help organizations drive connections and uses metrics that show their impact on the business. One of the leaders explained,

“Organizations need to embrace the power of technology in helping drive connections and opportunities. With high burnout, relying on individuals to make connections can easily fall by the wayside.”

Another participant shared an example of a framework their company introduced to help managers establish trust and transparency and remove barriers that prevent employees from achieving their goals. They embedded the framework as part of existing processes through their technology, so that people don’t see it as an extra thing they need to do.

We were grateful for the open and vulnerable discussion during this roundtable. We welcome your suggestions, thoughts, and feedback at [email protected].


Enabling connection at work: What can organizations do?

Posted on Tuesday, September 6th, 2022 at 4:17 PM    

In September 2022, we convened a roundtable for leaders to discuss how organizations can more effectively enable connection in the workplace. This session was part of our research into connection at work.

Thank you to all who participated, shared their experiences, and learned from one another.

Why is connection important?

To frame the conversation, we discussed why connection is important—both personally for roundtable participants and for their organizations. Participants commented that connection is:

  • Personally fulfilling
  • A deciding factor when joining an organization
  • Essential for productivity, team effectiveness, innovation, and wellbeing
  • Important for strengthening culture in a hybrid environment; at the core of creating a powerful culture
  • Key to learning and trust

Participants noted that loss of connection isn’t purely a pandemic problem—loneliness, disconnection, and isolation were on the rise before 2020. Rather, the pandemic exacerbated an existing trend. And as one participant put it, leaders in this roundtable were “in violent agreement” that strengthening connection in the workplace is now one of the most important challenges facing many organizations today.

This roundtable aimed to help leaders answer the question: How can organizations most effectively enable connection?

To answer this question, we discussed the roles that systems, leaders, individuals, tech, and data might play in enabling connection:

  • Systems. How can existing systems and processes be used to foster connection in an organization?
  • Leaders. What’s the role of senior leaders and managers in building connection? How can organizations support them in this effort?
  • Individuals. What’s the role of individuals in fostering connection in the workplace? How can organizations support individuals in this effort?
  • Tech & data. How can technology and data be used to foster connection in the workplace?

Key takeaways

The roundtable generated a number of insights we thought worth highlighting. Here are our top 4 takeaways.

Individuals have a responsibility to build connection

Some participants latched onto the idea that individuals have a responsibility to connect. They emphasized that this responsibility is noteworthy because, in their experience, individuals sometimes rely on others to do the connecting. One participant noted:

“One of the things that’s striking to me is that we’re saying, individuals have a responsibility.”

Another agreed:

“Reminding individuals that they actually DO have a responsibility for building connections as well, not relying on others to only connect with you.”

Participants discussed how organizations can support and enable employees in fulfilling this responsibility. The conversation turned to tools and processes that might be used to help employees connect. For example, one participant described the Accountability Partnership Maps they use in their organization to help employees understand whom to connect with:

“You put yourself in the center, and then put different roles around you. Then you ask yourself: Who do I need to connect with to be successful in my job? Which are the most important connections? Then you color code those relationships, red / yellow / green, in terms of how strong the relationship is.”

Participants noted that tools like the Accountability Partnership Map help employees understand where to focus their limited time to build connections that will help them be successful in their roles and careers.

Connection must be embedded in what’s already happening

Participants emphasized the fact that although most people agree connection is important, they’re also overwhelmed by all that’s already on their plates. Making connection one more thing they have to do is unhelpful and, frankly, unlikely to get the results that leaders or employees might hope for.

So, instead of making connection an extra program or task that managers and employees are asked to complete, some participants are embedding connection opportunities into existing processes like onboarding, career planning, and manager support resources.

Other participants have seen success making networking more intentional by associating trainings with buddy programs, peer mentoring, or actual mentoring and coaching.

Participants also noted that organizations should implement processes that encourage connection, but at least some of these must make space for organic, informal connections. Connections can’t all be formal, and they certainly shouldn’t feel forced. As one participant wrote:

“The moment is forced, it drives disconnection.”

Finally, participants pointed out that connection opportunities should happen inside whatever technologies employees are already working in—not in separate systems.

Leaders set the tone

If individuals have a responsibility to connect, leaders have an outsized influence on whether and how connection happens in an organization. The ways that leaders connect with each other and with their reports will trickle down to the rest of the organization—behaviors cascade down.

Leaders, therefore, have a responsibility to role model connection. They set the stage and expectations for how others connect. One participant wrote that leaders can:

“Create space for connection, model connection, invest in experiences and opportunities,  encourage connection in creative ways, understand the importance of and build in every day micro-moments to create opportunities, understand that connection looks different for different people.”

Some participants noted that in order to role model and set the tone in the right way, leaders need to feel connected themselves.

Others pointed out that although these behaviors may come naturally to some leaders, others need practice and support—and might be embarrassed or afraid to ask for help. Organizations can support leaders in role modeling expected behaviors by providing tools, best practices, and guidance. Guidance might look like:

  • Talk tracks for 1 to 1 conversations with reports
  • Regular nudges on why it’s important for managers to connect
  • Recognition of leaders who role model connection
  • Senior leaders telling stories about how they build connection, when they’ve made mistakes around connection and what they learned
  • Helping leaders understand the biases they may have about whom to connect with and how to connect with different types of people
  • Providing tools and tech that make it easy to connect, especially remotely

Participants noted that in order for leaders to forge relationships, they need time:

“You can't microwave a relationship – it takes time.”

Participants noted that leaders must be given permission, support, and time to build meaningful connections.

Connection shouldn’t be left to chance

Participants discussed the fact that pre-pandemic, many connections were developed organically. Relationship-building chats could happen in the break room, at the water cooler, in the hallway, or just before or after meetings.

Now, participants claimed, organic opportunities for connection are much rarer. So they must be intentionally built into the ways people work these days. One participant wrote in the chat:

“In remote work, individuals need to be far more intentional about pursuing connection.  It used to occur more passively / organically, but I'm seeing less of that now.”

Some participants suggested that tech and data can be used to enable connection more intentionally. Perhaps most obviously, tech enables asynchronous communication and collaboration, which helps with some kinds of connection. One participant shared the example that in their organization, some employees are using virtual coworking spaces, where people are working together but aren’t located in the same place. This can create a sense of connection and community while enabling people to work remotely.

As another example, tech can match employees for any number of things—coffee chats, mentoring, projects / gigs, etc.—at a scale that would be difficult to manage manually.

Others in the discussion noted that having data about who’s engaged, who’s connected with whom, how healthy teams are, and so on can help leaders be targeted in their efforts to enable people to connect.

We were grateful for the open and vulnerable discussion during this roundtable. We welcome your suggestions, thoughts, and feedback at [email protected].


Roundtable Readout- Roe vs. Wade: What now for organizations?

Posted on Thursday, July 7th, 2022 at 11:44 AM    

On June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe vs. Wade ruling, leaving many companies scrambling. In response, we convened a roundtable of leaders on June 30 to discuss these challenges and identify possible solutions.

Specifically, we discussed 3 questions:

  • How organizations are communicating about Roe vs. Wade, both internally and externally
  • How organizations can support those affected by this reversal
  • What are some of the broader implications for talent attraction, retention, and employee experience

Key takeaways

There is a general sense of fear resulting in a slow or lack of response from organizations on the issue

Companies had been quick and vocal about expressing their support for social issues in the recent past, such as the Black Lives Matter (#BLM) movement. Yet, many have stayed silent on this issue both internally and externally due to a few reasons:

  • While some groups and individuals expect their employers to take a stand on the issue, others prefer to avoid political discussions at work.
  • Many companies have offices across the globe. Taking a stand on a U.S.-based issue that does not impact large parts of the organization has deterred many leaders from speaking out publicly.
  • Many leaders are afraid of expressing a personal view or explicitly showing support or dissent for the ruling. Instead, they are limiting their response to acknowledging differing beliefs.

However, there is also a general fear of repercussions from staying silent on the issue. Employees have an increased level of expectations from their employers to take a stand, mainly because many organizations have been vocal about political issues in the recent past.

Many companies are focusing on the healthcare aspect of the issue

Many companies, unwilling to take a political stance on the topic, are using language that promotes healthcare access for employees to show their support. Because the overturn of the ruling changed laws overnight in some states, many HR leaders are not clear on the current benefits available to employees and how they will change in the future. Participants mentioned the lack of communication from their insurance companies, making it hard for organizations to share information with employees resulting in confusion and fear.

Some companies are finding other ways of helping their employees, such as:

  • Expanding benefits to include travel expense coverage
  • Communicating that the health and safety of their employees is their top priority
  • Working with their benefits provider to ensure that all employees, regardless of location, have access to the healthcare they need

Some are also providing mental health and wellbeing support by:

  • Encouraging conversations led by employee or business resource groups (E / BRGs) with guidelines on how to start a conversation on the topic, and set expectations around sharing, listening, and respecting each other
  • Opening up forums and town halls for communications with leadership
  • Promoting employee assistance programs (EAPs) for emotional support, including crisis lines offered to employees in need
  • Bringing in external facilitators to guide discussion and hold courageous conversations without repercussions

Privacy is a concern, but many are not thinking about it

There are serious legal implications that could emerge from the data collected on employees, but few companies are thinking about it or addressing it right now. Data tracking on employees who request medical support could lead to privacy concerns around access and usage. Similarly, reimbursements for travel expenses that require disclosure of travel purposes could also result in privacy challenges.

One of the ways companies can prevent such challenges is by using a third-party administrator for travel reimbursements or stipends which would ensure privacy for employees. Additionally, companies can restrict access to sensitive data such as biometrics. Finally, some organizations are revisiting their paid time off (PTO) policies to remove the distinction between sick time and PTOs and help afford employees privacy when applying for a leave without disclosing the specific reasons.

It’s too soon to know the broader impact on organizations

Participants agreed that while there will certainly be some implications for organizations based on how they approach this issue, it is too early to tell whether they will be long-term and significant. Over time, companies could find themselves asking questions such as:

  • Is this impacting the experience different populations have within the company?
  • Is talent attraction impacted because of it?
  • Has it impacted our attrition in the long term?
  • Do we see this affecting our brand?

Organizations are aware that any communications regarding the overturn will affect their company culture over time.

Thank you to all who participated and shared their experiences. We welcome your suggestions, thoughts, and feedback at [email protected].

Roundtable Readout – Learning Methods: Which Ones Work?

Posted on Tuesday, May 10th, 2022 at 12:13 PM    

At our recent roundtable called Learning Methods: Which Ones Work, we brought together Learning and Development (L&D) leaders from various industries to talk about learning methods. Specifically, we wanted to understand the learning methods L&D functions are implementing and how they might have changed since the pandemic.

Before we began, we reminded everyone of the research RedThread did last year. We identified 66 learning methods employees are using and how those methods fit into the 6 behaviors in our employee development framework (see our final report Learning Methods: What to use, how to choose, and when to cut them loose). This framework illustrates how different learning methods enable different behaviors.

6 behaviors of the Employee Development Framework and complementary learning methods

Source: RedThread Research, 2022

We focused on 4 of the 6 behaviors:

  • Plan: includes methods that enable employees to plan their development
  • Experiment: includes methods that enable employees to experiment with new knowledge and skills
  • Connect: includes methods that enable employees to learn from each other
  • Perform: includes methods that enable employees to learn while on the job

We chose these methods to push the conversation to those behaviors that L&D may find challenging or areas they are just starting to consider.

Key Takeaways

This roundtable generated several insights we thought were important. This readout shares our top 4 key takeaways.

Skills are an essential driver for helping employees plan their development

Learning leaders are actively thinking about skills—and with that, how to encourage and enable employees to build skills the organization needs. To do this, they're focusing on learning methods such as:

  • Skills assessments. L&D is leveraging assessments to better understand the skills employees have and help them figure out how to fill them. As one L&D leader said,
“We’ve started to use skills assessments to fill skills gaps as we begin to think about what the future skills are."
  • Individual development plans (IDPs). As organizations focus on individuals and personalization, IDPs appear to be getting new life. One leader said his organization had rebranded the IDP as a Growth Portfolio – a way to plan and record individuals' learning and development that can also show desired career path and competence. 
  • Career Coaching. L&D sees career coaching as a learning method to help employees build the skills they need. However, it can be a heavy lift for organizations to manage. For this reason, many roundtable participants confirm that their organizations do not rely heavily on career coaching when planning development (our data says 19% of employees).

Experiment methods are slowly gaining traction.

Roundtable participants noted that learning methods geared toward helping employees experiment with new knowledge and skills (job rotations, job shadowing, informational interviews, etc.) were becoming more common within their organizations. 

“We’re trying to do more job rotations. We’re thinking about the skills of the future and how we bridge those gaps. Especially for new employees and HIPOs – how do we get them into those rotations?”

As L&D works to utilize these methods, many are facing 2 challenges:

  • Systemic issues. L&D leaders find ”experiment“ methods challenging to manage and track. But they’re still making it work. One leader said her organization is trying to leverage its talent marketplace to enable employees to experiment with new knowledge and skills (e.g., scheduling informational interviews).
  • Structural issues. Many participants also noted that the L&D function isn't the sole owner of many experiment methods. Because it is a shared responsibility in many cases, it’s sometimes unclear who's in charge and who is driving the initiatives, or it takes too much coordination. Others mentioned that their organizations don't yet have the structure to encourage experiments on a larger scale. 

The pandemic left many employees feeling bereft of support and connection.

Before the pandemic, there was a big focus on self-service learning. After the pandemic, one of the themes appears to be connection in learning. Roundtable participants mentioned that they see connection in the following ways:

  • Both internal and external connections. Organizations are looking for ways to help employees connect internally with other employees for learning but are also looking to connect them with experts on the outside. A participant noted that the top 2 most relied upon Connect methods, from RedThread Research’s learning survey data, focus on building networks outside of the organization (prof networks = 39% and social networks = 28%). 
  • Employees feel responsible for helping their peers learn. L&D leaders are observing that employees have a desire to learn from each other. For one L&D leader, a recent survey in their org found that 68% of employees felt accountable for contributing to the learning of others. They continued by saying,
"This was 20 percentage points above benchmark. This data influenced our strategy—how can we facilitate that natural strength of our learning culture?"

L&D leaders are trying to figure out how to support the shifts in connection. As one participant said,

“Do we want to support colleagues in creating external and internal connections or leverage collective knowledge in the organization by supporting connections among colleagues?” 

Choices in how methods are implemented can affect how equitable learning opportunities are

The idea of learning equity or development equity resonated with roundtable participants. We weren't surprised to hear this, as more L&D functions are taking on responsibilities having to do with Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging.

Participants drew a connection between more personalized planning and offering more learning methods and a more equitable experience. One leader said,

“Everyone has an opportunity to grow. We’re making it easier for individuals to capture the strengths / skills they have and what they want to develop more of. So, let’s allow people to tell us what they’re good at and tailor the learning to that.”

Additionally, participants mentioned the need to tweak systems and processes related to access to learning methods. For example, online courses are often reserved for those with specific titles or in certain areas of the company. Instead, L&D functions should work to provide as much access as possible to as many as possible, cost permitting. 

Thank you to all who participated and shared their experiences. We welcome your suggestions, thoughts, and feedback at [email protected].

Roundtable Readout: L&D's DEIB Opportunity

Posted on Tuesday, April 26th, 2022 at 5:49 AM    

In April 2022, we convened a roundtable for leaders to discuss how L&D functions can make employee development more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. This session was part of our research into what we're calling L&D's DEIB Opportunity. We aim to identify the most effective things that L&D functions can do to support diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) efforts in their organizations.

This readout shares some of the highlights from the session. Thank you to all who participated, shared their experiences, and learned from one another.

L&D's DEIB commitments are growing

To frame the conversation, we shared data from LinkedIn Learning’s 2021 and 2022 Workplace Learning Reports (Figure 1). L&D functions are not only planning more DEIB programs, but they’re taking on more ownership of DEIB efforts.

L&D functions' commitments on DEIB grew from 2021 to 2022.

L&D's DEIB commitments are growing | Source: LinkedIn Learning Workplace Learning Report, 2021 and 2022.

When we asked roundtable participants if they were seeing or experiencing this trend themselves, they agreed. They wrote in the chat things like:

  • “Definitely”
  • “Absolutely”
  • “Without a doubt”

How can L&D functions meet these growing responsibilities?

To answer this question, we focused on how L&D functions can make the systems of employee development in their organizations more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. We discussed 4 aspects of employee development:

  • Discovery. How do employees find out about development opportunities? How can L&D functions enable different groups to more equitably discover those opportunities?
  • Access. Which employees could take advantage of development opportunities if they chose? Who has permission / is nominated to attend? Who has the right tech? How can L&D functions enable different groups to more equitably access development opportunities?
  • Participation. Which employees participate in development opportunities? How does participation differ across groups, and why? How can L&D functions enable more equitable participation across groups?
  • L&D itself. How might L&D’s systems and processes be biased or inequitable? How might L&D functions address those inequities?

Key takeaways

The roundtable generated a number of insights we thought worth highlighting. Here are our top 5 takeaways. 

To make learning more DEIB, focus on how decisions are made

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ways decisions are made have a huge effect on whether employee development is equitable, inclusive, and accessible across the various groups in an organization. Decisions about who can access certain development opportunities are particularly impactful. One participant shared the following anecdote:

I used to work for a large corporation. Pre-pandemic, we would fly people in for exclusive leadership development programs. The lack of diversity was astounding. The programs are great, but they're often reserved for people who are already privileged. I had to ask myself: Who's approving these attendees? Who's got the budget?

Leaders shared 2 ideas for reducing such biases.

  1. Make decisions transparent. One organization implemented decision-making frameworks to help managers and leaders understand the different factors that weighed into their decisions. These frameworks also help leaders explicitly focus on the criteria that align with their values and the organization's values.
  2. Make matches, not decisions. Another organization is using skills to remove some decisions entirely. By ensuring every employee has a skills profile (or skills signature), the organization can match employees with specific skills needs and gaps with appropriate development opportunities. The system makes the match, not a leader.

We thought these 2 ideas for reducing bias in decision-making were practical approaches that might apply in many organizations.

Marketing and messaging can include or exclude

A second insight from the group is just how important marketing and messaging are. They influence who learns about what development opportunities and—arguably more important—who decides to take advantage of those opportunities.

A portion of the conversation focused on whether outreach and marketing activities reach the people L&D functions intend them to. As one leader put it:

It's inequitable if L&D sends an email about a development opportunity and 30% of your workforce doesn't use email.

Leaders suggested marketing development opportunities in multiple channels—overcommunicating—and ensuring opportunities are marketed where employees are. For example, a paper flyer in a break room or stand-up meeting might be most effective for reaching front-line employees who do not regularly check email.

In addition, leaders noted that the language, visuals, and tone used in marketing communications about development opportunities can affect whether an employee thinks an opportunity will be relevant and helpful to them. They should be able to see themselves in the opportunity, or they may not choose to participate even if they have access.

Analytics and data can reveal systemic inequities

Leaders in this roundtable emphasized the need to check assumptions about whether development opportunities are as DEIB as L&D functions might hope. Ideally, they said, the demographics of the people who participate in development opportunities should roughly mirror the demographics of the organization's employee population.

Leaders shared that some reasons for differences in participation rates between groups might be:

  • Lack of technical access to training (e.g., cannot access learning on mobile phone, do not have a company-provided device, do not have good enough internet access). The ability to pay for tech to access development opportunities is also a potential source of inequity.
  • Messaging / marketing doesn’t speak to certain groups
  • Certain employees aren't afforded the time to access learning within their work day and cannot / do not want to participate on their own time

Tracking participation in development opportunities over time to see if attendees do, in fact, mirror the population can help reveal possible gaps in marketing / messaging, access, etc. The importance of tracking data over time was articulated by one leader who noted:

We can make plans that we think allow for universal access, but until we check to see whether in fact the result is representative participation, we don’t know whether our approaches are in fact creating equal access.

One leader shared that in her organization, they do A/B testing like marketers. They look to see who's registering for opportunities, who shows up, who consumes content online, etc. They analyze this data by all demographic / diversity statistics that are available.

L&D functions should rely on DEIB resources across the organization

Leaders in this roundtable agreed that as L&D functions take on more of a role in DEIB efforts, they cannot and should not do it alone. There are many resources across an organization that can help L&D functions identify and address inequities in employee development.

For example, the leader whose organization does A/B testing recommended reaching out to the IT team. They can help L&D functions access data about who's clicking where, which employees have company-supported devices, and—in many organizations—aggregated data on how many employees have downloaded accessibility software (screen readers, etc.).

Other leaders noted all that DEIB teams can offer. A number of leaders said the DEIB teams in their organizations do "fairness audits" for business functions to help identify gaps. They can do this for the L&D team, for example by auditing the fairness of L&D's messaging, communications, and learning platforms.

A third resource leaders noted were Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). They recommended involving ERGs in marketing / messaging for development opportunities, assessment of how different opportunities appeal to / impact different groups, and the creation of new opportunities.

Virtual work made some learning more equitable

Leaders noted that when the pandemic forced them to put many in-person, cohort-based development opportunities online, they saw a marked increase in participation rates in these programs. And not only did participation increase, but it often increased in terms of diversity: more diverse employees attended. Leaders attributed this change to a few factors:

  • Virtual is easier to attend. Trainings were shorter and didn't require travel or overnights away from home. This meant it was easier for caregivers (who are disproportionately women and members of underrepresented groups) to attend.
  • Diversity begets diversity. Leaders reported that in their organizations, as more people saw people like themselves participating in or leading learning, they felt more comfortable participating themselves. As such, they saw an increase in participation from people who'd never attended trainings.

One leader offered a counterpoint to this general trend. After the pandemic started and her organization shifted to remote work, she saw a marked decrease in participation rates. When she asked employees why, they told her that before the pandemic, they only requested to attend training because it got them out of the office. Their experience in-office was toxic; they felt they couldn't express themselves. Working from home, they didn't feel the same need to escape.

 We were grateful for the open and vulnerable discussion during this roundtable. We welcome your suggestions, thoughts, and feedback at [email protected].

Performance Management for a Hybrid Workforce: Insights & Takeaways

Posted on Tuesday, October 5th, 2021 at 9:00 AM    

As part of our research on modern performance management, we invited leaders to participate in a roundtable discussion on performance management (PM) for a hybrid workforce. The conversation focused on 4 main topics:

  • Goals and assessments. How should orgs amend their goal-setting and assessment processes to meet the needs of a hybrid workforce?
  • Capability of managers. How can managers be supported in enabling performance for a hybrid workforce?
  • Feedback. How should orgs rethink their feedback approach to meet the needs of a hybrid workforce?
  • Technology. How can tech be used differently to support the measurement and enablement of employee performance for a hybrid workforce?

Grounding Our Conversation: Our Previous PM Research

To start the conversation, we shared our previous research on the topic that consisted of findings from our Fall 2019 study, Modern Performance Management, in which we identified the “3 Cs” that drive performance—culture, capability of managers, and clarity. But PM needs to change for the hybrid world. Our 3 Cs model can be leveraged and applied to managing a hybrid workforce, as shown in Figure 1.

We also shared our findings from a recent extensive literature review based on more than 60 articles, blogs, and academic papers. Some of the key themes and hidden gems shared include:

  • Orgs need to rethink bias and culture
  • Managers tackle PM with empathy
  • Recognition and rewards matter in hybrid work
  • PM tracking needs to meet the ethical needs of hybrid work
  • A more strategic role for HR

Key Takeaways from the Discussion

The roundtable discussion resulted in rich insights. The overall discussion focused on how current PM processes and systems can be redesigned to meet the needs of a hybrid workforce. Leaders shared their challenges and ideas around how they’re approaching the changing needs of their orgs. Some of our key takeaways from the discussion are:

  • Orgs need to rethink differentiated rewards moving forward
  • Leaders and managers should check for bias and intentionality when it comes to feedback
  • Senior leaders and managers need to upskill to enable performance in a hybrid environment
  • PM tech matters, but only if it enables those involved in performance processes

Orgs need to rethink differentiated rewards moving forward

2020 was the year during which empathy resurfaced as a crucial capability for managers and senior leaders. Some orgs put ratings on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic (to be resumed later) or completely eliminated them, as employees struggled to adapt and perform in a changed environment.

However, when talking about the future, leaders emphasized the need to adapt ratings for a hybrid workforce—and design a differentiated rewards system for high and low performers. As one leader explained:

“2020 was all hands-on deck, but at the end of the day we know some were pulling harder than others. If we do not find a way in this environment to account for that and reward people, we will run into problems, especially for high performers.”

Leaders acknowledged experiencing this challenge as they think through questions of whether to:

  • Stay in this environment and enable performance to the best extent possible, or
  • Go back to where they were before the pandemic and be mindful of the differential levels of performance

At the end of the discussion for this topic, leaders agreed—what’s important is that leaders strike the balance on what is good for the org.

Leaders & managers should check for bias & intentionality when it comes to feedback

Biases—such as recency (favoring those with whom recent conversations were held or work done) and proximity (favoring those working from the office or closer to the evaluator)—are likely to surface more in a virtual environment since managers can no longer rely on perceptions of who’s working the hardest based on physical presence.

This will increasingly become a bigger issue as some employees return to the office while others don’t. This is why assessments and feedback conversations should be reviewed carefully for such biases.

A few leaders shared specific examples of how they approach it:

  1. Leverage tech that nudges leaders to give real-time and nonbiased feedback to employees
  2. Plan to calibrate goals at the beginning of the year—and ensure people get the support and feedback they need throughout the year
  3. Conduct a combination of training and performance audits to mitigate bias in performance processes—which include incorporating multisource feedback into the assessment process—so it’s not reliant on one evaluator’s appraisal

Intentionality of feedback was also highlighted as a crucial factor that needs to be assessed for a hybrid workforce. As one leader pointed out:

“People assume they know how to give feedback, but in a hybrid environment we don’t have as many opportunities to give feedback. There are fewer nonverbal signals, which is why we need to be more intentional about it and set up time to see where feedback landed.”

It’s extremely important for managers and leaders to be clear about their intent while giving feedback—and check how their feedback is landing in a virtual environment. At the same time, orgs should be mindful of how feedback is being received by employees.

Senior leaders & managers need to upskill to enable performance in a hybrid environment

The ability and need for senior leaders and managers to give feedback, conduct assessments, and work with employees to develop their goals was a theme repeatedly heard during the discussions. Several leaders mentioned that their orgs are actively working to provide managers with programs to help and empower them to have performance conversations and navigate the complexities of hybrid work.

As one of the leaders put it:

“Leaders have learnt it’s more work to manage a team that is completely remote. We have been working on helping leaders understand that and coach them in what they need—which is empathy and the understanding that knowledge workers have to balance work and personal life.”

Leaders shared some of the specific ways to help improve these capabilities, including:

  • Providing structure to performance conversations and standard phrases to use
  • Addressing how to open a performance conversation virtually versus face to face
  • Providing access to collaboration tools to facilitate interaction
  • Coaching and feedback to help managers lead a virtual team
  • Training to help managers understand the different needs of employees working from home versus from the office

An example of how orgs are approaching this was mentioned by one leader as they shared how their Inclusion team set up virtual 1:1 training with leaders to help them have difficult performance conversations with avatars. The purpose is to train and prepare leaders for end-of-year performance sessions and guide them through challenging scenarios.

PM tech matters, but only if it enables those involved in performance processes

We heard some insightful remarks during the discussion around how tech can and should be leveraged for PM. Tech should enable managers and leaders to have better conversations and provide timely feedback instead of turning these into tasks for managers to check off their lists. One leader highlighted how tech can allow managers to think their job is done once they’ve entered something into the system:

“If managers don’t understand it is their responsibility to drive performance, conversations, and give feedback, no amount or kind of tech is going to matter.”

Another challenge associated with tech is the amount of friction created due to the increasing number of tools that orgs are using, which require managers and employees to input information in multiple platforms—resulting in a poor experience. As one leader put it:

“When it comes to tech, it’s so easy to add on. Sometimes less can be more.”

When it comes to enabling performance in hybrid work, leaders shared that tech can help by enabling teams to understand what everyone’s working on and how that work is progressing in a virtual environment.

Overall, leaders agreed that tech needs to be an enabler instead of just a record-keeping or documentation tool.

A Special Thanks

We enjoyed a highly engaging discussion full of interesting insights. Thanks again to those who attended and made it such an enriching conversation. If you missed out on the chance to attend the roundtable, you can still participate in the study by reaching out to us at [email protected]. If you’re looking for more resources on this topic, please check out our research.

As always, we welcome your suggestions, thoughts, and feedback at [email protected].

Future of Coaching: What is it, what’s it for, and when does it end?

Posted on Tuesday, September 14th, 2021 at 3:00 PM    

As part of our research on coaching, we invited leaders to participate in a roundtable on the future of coaching. The conversation focused on 4 main topics:

  • Increasing access: How can coaching increase access to learning throughout the org (beyond top leadership)?
  • Expanding the meaning of “coach”: How are orgs leveraging different types of internal coaches (e.g., manager as coach, peer coaching, reverse coaching)?
  • Improving well-being: How can coaching support the whole employee beyond role performance?
  • Coaching culture: How can coaching become more systemic?

Shared Initial Research Findings

To start the conversation, we shared our research findings thus far from engaging in ongoing conversations with leaders and conducting an extensive literature review based on 60 articles, blogs, and academic papers.

Figure 1: Future of Coaching Lit Review Word Cloud  |  Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

The word cloud above, produced by our literature review, points to answering the question, “what is coaching for?”

Org leaders see coaching as a tool to help manage, develop, and mentor employees, improve how they perform, and support them in how they learn and build new skills.

Through this process, we also saw coaching changing in 3 fundamental ways:

Figure 2: Ways Coaching is Changing  |  Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

  1. More coaching is being extended to more people in the org past top leadership (e.g., new hires, sales groups, DEIB groups).
  2. Coaching is starting to shift from a traditional 1:1 between external coach to internal leader to other approaches like coaching on demand, manager as coach, peer coaching, reverse mentoring and coaching, AI coaching, and group coaching.
  3. The goals of coaching are expanding; while the traditional goal of coaching has been performance, coaching is moving to become a “benefit to the employee” by addressing wellbeing, as nutrition and wellness coaches enter the space.

Key Takeaways

This research set the stage for our conversation. But while we’ve already conducted extensive research over the past 4 months, this roundtable continued to surprise us with some gems and new insights. We learned about the ways orgs are using coaching to achieve some of their most fundamental goals, as well as the ways they’re struggling with the scope and scale of their efforts. Here are our 5 key takeaways:

  1. Coaching is a tool, profession, and way of life, depending on the context
  2. Coaching needs a problem to solve
  3. Coaching shouldn’t blur lines with therapy
  4. Coaching is one tool in a manager’s toolkit
  5. Coaching culture is best lived out in practice

Coaching is a tool, profession, and way of life, depending on the context

We asked, “what is coaching?” expecting to hear answers that could be synthesized into one definition, but we discovered that leaders define coaching in different ways for different contexts.

Some leaders saw coaching as a tool for managers: a tool to help their team members learn, grow, and develop key skills. Others referred to coaching as a profession—one that requires some form of accreditation or certification.

And some talked about coaching as something bigger: a framework, perspective, or way of life. These leaders said coaching is what defines good leadership. It’s a lens through which great leaders view all their work, not something they do on occasion. As one leader said:

When coaching is viewed as a leadership style, learning becomes integrated into day-to-day interactions. This makes coaching—and learning—a way of life.

Coaching needs a problem to solve

Leaders talked at length about the difficulty orgs can have in deciding—and communicating to employees—how long coaching efforts should last.

One leader said their org limited coaching engagements to 6 months due to high demand. Participants enjoyed the process so much that they wanted to continue indefinitely. The org needed to determine a cutoff point to allow others to benefit from the coaches’ time.

Others emphasized the importance of clearly setting the coaching agenda and goals at the outset—whether individual or organizational—so it is clear when those goals have been reached. One leader noted:

Coaching is often treated like a silver bullet, but we’re not answering the question, “What’s the problem we’re solving for?” Everything should flow out of the problem to solve.

We were excited to hear about a new example of coaching: integrating it into an org transformation, such as an agile transformation. It’s easier to know when coaching should end in this instance because there is a specific purpose and a problem that it is aiming to solve (e.g., employees learning how to work in an agile framework).

Coaching shouldn’t blur lines with therapy

As we talked about the introduction of well-being into the coaching space, there was some concern that these two worlds are starting to overlap.

Many leaders noted that orgs, as a legal matter, do not provide coaches to discuss personal mental health or medical issues. One leader shared that at their org, employees were referred to therapists for mental health and reimbursed separately, as opposed to integrating that offering into their coaching practice.

However, leaders emphasized employees’ need for human connection—a need that has grown throughout the pandemic. They pointed to team coaching and other group coaching options as ways orgs can help employees connect with one another, find community, and be themselves in a safe space. As one leader said:

Employees need to bring their whole selves to work. The current moment requires it.

These options were seen as more appropriate ways for orgs to support employee well-being while leaving clinical and mental health matters to the licensed professionals.

Coaching is one tool in a manager’s toolkit

When we asked about how coaching is expanding, one of the most common ideas that leaders brought up was “manager as coach.”

Participants stressed the importance of managers having strong coaching skills. Great managers are skilled, for example, in providing good feedback, skillful questioning, setting goals, and guiding employees to think through challenges and come to conclusions.

However, there was also an emphasis on not over-relying on coaching as the only tool for managers: Coaching is not always the right tool for the job. Sometimes managers must direct employees; other times, they may need to act as core team members.

As a result, helping managers understand when and how to effectively use coaching skills is a crucial piece of the “manager as coach” approach. As one leader said:

Before coaching, managers need to know how to assess the situation. What does this person need? What tools do I have at my disposal? What tool should I use based on what’s going on with this person?

Coaching culture is best lived out in practice

Lastly, leaders discussed “coaching culture”—a current buzz phrase—and what it means in practice. Most leaders felt that having a coaching culture means coaching is “in the water” of the org—it’s part of everyday interactions. How to get coaching into the water is, of course, the challenge.

When we asked what orgs are doing to put coaching in the water, they mentioned the following ideas:

  • Creating forums that allow people to connect, practice, and experience coaching with one another
  • Including coaching in leadership development offerings
  • Incorporating coaching into performance conversations
  • Following any coaching workshops or training with support and sustainment efforts once employees return to their day jobs
  • Expanding access to coaching so that everyone in the org can experience it—to eliminate the disconnect between theory and application, between head and heart. As one leader said:

It’s necessary to experience coaching in order to know what it is and enjoy it.

Expanding access can have a ripple effect, since those who experience and enjoy coaching go on to further support this learning-centric practice and thus influence the culture.

This discussion about how coaching is changing brought up significant insights as well as surprises. Thanks again to those who attended and made it such an enriching conversation. As always, we welcome your suggestions, thoughts, and feedback at [email protected].

C-Suite & People Analytics: Insights & Takeaways

Posted on Tuesday, June 29th, 2021 at 8:01 AM    


We recently launched new research on C-suite and people analytics (PA). This research aims to:

  • Explore the types of challenges that PA can help address for C-suite leaders
  • Highlight ways PA leaders can build successful partnerships with the C-suite
  • Gain credibility to continue providing value in the future

To brainstorm this further, we invited a group of leaders to participate in our roundtable on this topic.

Our purpose is to better understand how people analytics can support C-suite execs to address talent-related challenges.

Our roundtable discussion focused on 4 key areas:

  • Challenges. How can PA be of value to the C-suite and help them address challenges—both common and novel?
  • Metrics. What kind of metrics should PA leaders focus on? How can they best drive change within the org using metrics?
  • Partnership. How can we build a strong partnership between PA and the C-suite?
  • Culture. How can we create / reinforce a data-driven culture to propel change in our org?

Mindmap of C-suite and PA Roundtable

The mindmap below outlines the conversations that transpired as part of this roundtable.

Note: This is a live document. Click on the window and use your cursor to explore it.


We had a very enriching conversation. The discussion highlighted ways people analytics can actively contribute to help address C-suite challenges, practical steps to gain credibility, and strategies to create a lasting impact. More broadly, participants expressed their ideas on 2 fronts:

  • Strategies and practical steps for PA to showcase its value to the C-suite and the broader org
  • Factors that PA needs to consider to maintain a strong relationship with the C-suite

Participants expressed ideas for PA to show its value and to gain influence among C-suite members—and sustain that for the long term.

A few key takeaways stand out from the discussion:

  1. Metrics can serve as a conversation starter with the C-suite
  2. Certain skills are key for PA leaders to influence the C-suite
  3. Structural inefficiency can be a barrier to value delivery
  4. Incremental steps can build credibility for PA
  5. A strong partnership with the C-suite requires a balancing of priorities

The following sections offer an overview of each key takeaway.

Metrics can serve as a conversation starter with the C-suite

A frequently mentioned insight shared by participants was around using metrics as a means to spark conversations with execs about high-impact issues, rather than just providing metrics for the sake of providing them.

PA teams should lend themselves to decision-making instead of focusing on measurement.

Participants shared how the C-suite often becomes amazed by some of the simpler descriptive, tablestakes metrics: These can help PA get a foot in the door and gain the C-suite’s attention. Providing high-level descriptive metrics can lead to conversations with C-suite leaders intrigued by the “catchy” numbers which, in turn, will more likely engage them in dialogue with PA when they’re making important people decisions. As one participant explained:

A portion of the people analytics meetings with the C-suite should be about the high-level metrics and numbers. The more these metrics lead to questions, the more likely it paves the way for meaningful conversations.

Although these descriptive metrics can help PA get a foot in the door, participants agreed that they’re mostly useful in attracting the C-suite’s attention. The next-level metrics—that provide more value to the C-suite—are usually the same tablestakes, descriptive numbers but presented with more granularity.

PA can provide more value to the C-suite by linking tablestakes metrics with operational performance and business goals—by breaking down descriptives via different employee groups, etc., and using an intersectional framework.

When it comes to specific metrics, some of those that participants routinely share with their execs include:

  • Tablestakes metrics—
    • Employee engagement
    • Turnover and retention
    • Recruitment metrics (e.g., headcount growth, hiring goals, current openings, etc.)
    • DEIB metrics
  • Next-level metrics—
    • Objective data on employees
    • Operational performance metrics
    • Intersectional and group-specific metrics

Certain skills are key for PA leaders to influence the C-suite

During the discussion around ways PA can help address C-suite challenges, the conversation pivoted to highlight some of the skills that PA leaders need to enable them to better influence the C-suite. Some of the skills mentioned during this conversation include:

  • Storytelling
  • Courage
  • Political skills / astuteness
  • Relationship-building

C-suite leaders often don’t have enough time to dig into complex data and analyses—and here’s an opportunity for PA leaders. The following ideas from roundtable participants highlight the use of these 4 skills with the C-suite.

  • Participants mentioned the need for PA leaders to be able to tell stories to facilitate communicating with the C-suite, apart from just presenting data. Storytelling can:
    • Convey data-driven insights in a more appealing way
    • Help C-suite leaders better understand the relevance of people data in making important decisions

As one participant stated:

“Storytelling is a way to see the forest through the trees—combatting anecdotal truths with data.“

  • Participants highlighted the importance of PA leaders being courageous to more strongly call out significant findings when faced with doubt. This skill is especially useful, for instance, when leaders question the integrity of data and pose doubts about the findings.

Sometimes conversations with C-suite execs become circular—and courage is needed to bring attention to the situation and get to the truth.

  • Political astuteness. Often, PA leaders need to manage a variety of stakeholders while influencing the C-suite’s decision-making. Understanding the “lay of the land” and using that to the PA function’s advantage is becoming increasingly important for PA leaders—to enable them to push up the chain of command and provide value through data.
  • Relationship-building. Along with political astuteness, PA leaders also need to have strong relationship-building skills—empowering them to be better informed of what the C-suite considers as their biggest problems. This puts PA leaders in a better position to more accurately provide the insights needed by C-suite execs.

Structural inefficiency can be a barrier to value delivery

Among the many factors discussed in PA influencing the C-suite, participants indicated org structure as being critical. The appropriate placement of the PA function within an org is crucial for developing prominence, credibility, and sponsorship. Participants also highlighted that direct communication, feedback, and alignment with the C-suite are some of the outcomes of an ideal structural placement.

The proper placement of the PA function within an org can enhance the value that analytics can provide to the org, instead of being hidden away due to poor org structure.

One of the challenges of effectively building partnerships between PA and the C-suite is often the lack of open communication channels. Participants mentioned that navigating different functions (e.g., HR, finance, etc.) to get the information to the C-suite can create barriers and difficulty in providing value: It increases the chances of receiving inadequate information or data being interpreted out of context. Combatting this org structural inefficiency is key to successful PA and C-suite partnerships.

If information has to go through several functions to get to the C-suite, then this delivery system increases the likelihood of creating a bottleneck along the way.

Our discussion highlighted the need for direct communication channels to equip everybody with the people insights they need—without blinders—to make informed decisions.

Incremental steps can build credibility for PA

Throughout the discussion, participants mentioned several ways that PA can build credibility in order to help and influence C-suite challenges. Specifically, the need to take incremental steps was called out. Some of the basic steps that PA functions should focus on include:

  • Figuring out the capabilities of PA (as more than just a reporting function)
  • Becoming familiar with business needs and org goals
  • Building out use cases to demonstrate the value
  • Addressing data skepticism, myths, and anecdotes with facts
  • Providing consistent results to build trust

When PA considers itself as a reporting function—taking orders and requests, they’re likely to be less influential. People analytics is brought into important company conversations when PA is clearer about their capabilities and proactively takes actions to solve C-suite challenges.

Having a clear vision of what PA provides—both now and for the future—helps PA move beyond being just a reporting function.

Participants also mentioned the need for PA to proactively understand the org's goals and to put that into context (for the C-suite) to help support business needs with important data and insights. PA can start small by building out specific use cases (e.g., providing managers with critical team productivity data) and enabling individuals to be data champions to demonstrate the value of analytics. As one of the participants stated:

PA has a reputation for sounding like witchcraft and wizardry—PA needs to debunk this stigma and enable individuals to be data gladiators.

People analytics can also build credibility by addressing any data skepticism and myths that hinder progress by providing quality data.

One participant shared an example of how they were able to dispel skepticism around their work policies by providing data which addressed leadership concerns that people weren’t productive working from home. Similarly, the PA function was able to offer concrete data that showed the risk of losing 33% of their female workforce if they didn’t offer a flexible work policy.

Consistently providing critical data that helps the C-suite make important and tough decisions can help in establishing and maintaining credibility.

A strong partnership with the C-suite requires a balancing of priorities

The roundtable discussion also touched upon the need for PA to be clear and transparent about their priorities in order to build a strong partnership with the C-suite. One way to do this is by pushing back on some of the low-value and low-impact requests from HR. The key to that, as one participant explained, is using the “push” approachwhich involves PA identifying a key business issue and creating a cadence of sharing insights on it with the C-suite.

This approach can help build a lasting relationship instead of a delivery model that relies on a “pull” approachwaiting for the C-suite to pull PA into conversations or decisionswhich isn’t realistic. As C-suite grapples with many competing priorities and challenges, they don’t know when, where, or how PA can provide value.

The push approach can be successful in building a strong partnership with the C-suite: PA identifies their internal customers and then asks those people questions they themselves might not be asking, thus increasing PA’s impact.

However, as some participants noted, push approaches can also build mistrust among C-suite execs. Finding the balance between push and pull approaches may be key to maintaining credibility and trust. As one participant offered, regarding C-suite execs:

PA should regularly ask, “How much do we want to push?”

Throughout the discussion, participants also mentioned other strategies that can go a long way in building a partnership with the C-suite, including:

  • Using business language
  • Keeping insights succinct
  • Providing actionable recommendations


We're extremely grateful to the attendees who enriched the conversation by sharing their thoughtful ideas and experiences. And, as always, we welcome your suggestions and feedback at [email protected].

Employees, Skills & DEIB: Insights & Takeaways

Posted on Tuesday, June 1st, 2021 at 12:46 PM    


As part of our ongoing research in the area of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB), a few months ago we launched a new study to identify and look at the skills that can advance DEIB in orgs today. In our first roundtable on this topic, we focused on understanding which skills are critical for fostering DEIB and how orgs can effectively develop them.

We recently held our second roundtable on the topic of DEIB and skills and invited members from the following groups to participate:

  • Employees
  • Managers
  • Employee resource group (ERG) leaders
  • Senior leaders

We aimed to understand the roles of different organizational groups in fostering DEIB and the specific skills each group needs to embed DEIB into the org’s culture.

Our roundtable discussions focused on 2 main questions:

  • What are the roles and responsibilities of employees, managers, ERG leaders, and senior leaders in fostering a DEIB culture?
  • What skills do each of these groups need to drive DEIB at work?

Mindmap of Second DEIB & Skills Roundtable

The mindmap below outlines the conversations that transpired as part of this second roundtable.

Note: This is a live document. Click the window and use your cursor to explore it.

Key Takeaways

Highly engaging, the discussion produced different perspectives that helped us uncover several interesting insights. In general, the participants agreed that a lot of work needs to be done around identifying and intentionally developing skills for DEIB.

Participants agreed that a lot of work needs to be done around identifying and intentionally developing skills for DEIB.

A few key takeaways stand out from the discussion:

  1. Managers need more than “managerial skills” to drive DEIB
  2. Senior leaders should enable big-picture thinking
  3. ERG leaders play a unique role in fostering DEIB
  4. Clarity should be used for skills identification
  5. Similar skills have different applications across job levels

The following sections offer an overview of each takeaway.

Managers need more than “managerial skills” to drive DEIB

Talking about the roles managers play in fostering DEIB and the skills they need to do that, participants highlighted several crucial responsibilities at the interpersonal and team levels.

  • Managers should model appropriate behaviors, create psychological safety for their teams, set clear expectations, and take initiatives to seek out different perspectives. Some of the underpinning skills managers need to carry out these responsibilities include:
    • Self-awareness
    • Open-mindedness
    • Receptiveness
    • Willingness to learn
    • Active listening
  • A number of manager skills required to drive DEIB aren’t considered essential or associated with being a manager. For example, one participant pointed out: While on the one hand managers are typically expected to “have all the answers”—they also need to be able to show a willingness to learn from others, and be open to diverse thoughts and ideas. Clear expectations must be set for the manager role and the work that needs to be done when it comes to DEIB.
  • Additional training or continuing education programs for managers can help set the foundation for more nuanced DEIB skills. Participants pointed out that they see a lot of successful individual contributors promoted to the manager role because they’re able to produce effectively—but they may lack adequate people skills. As one participant explained:

“When it comes to DEIB, managers should get comfortable ‘writing with their nondominant hands’—as it forces them to think about the tendency to do things that are uncomfortable and helps reorient leaders to be able to improve DEIB.”

Senior leaders should enable big-picture thinking

Among all 4 groups, attendees listed the largest number of responsibilities for senior leaders. This long list (see the mindmap) indicates the crucial role senior leaders play in fostering DEIB across the org. At the core of it all, senior leaders are responsible for setting the tone, policies, and systems in place that foster a culture of DEIB. As one participant stated:

“Leaders are expected to lead DEIB efforts and model behaviors that reflect the org’s commitment to DEIB.”

For senior leaders, most of the necessary skills identified by participants focus on big-picture thinking, including:

  • Change management. Senior leaders should champion DEIB values by steering the org through large-scale culture change
  • The ability to influence people by effectively communicating the company’s DEIB goals with different audiences
  • Learning agility. As leaders encounter complex DEIB challenges, the ability to apply the learnings from one situation to another becomes crucial
  • Systems thinking.1 When senior leaders engage in systems thinking, they’re more likely to think about DEIB more holistically, rather than implementing piecemeal strategies

Senior leaders: Dare to dream, challenge organizational, systemic, and policy disparities, and periodically reflect on what’s working—versus what’s not—in order to initiate change.

The discussion also highlighted the importance of senior leaders’ ability to empower others by giving people the “safe” space to speak up and bring together the appropriate groups of people to carry forward the org’s DEIB mission.

ERG leaders play a unique role in fostering DEIB

The discussion around ERG leaders’ responsibilities and the skills needed for DEIB resulted in some of the most novel insights from the roundtable. ERG leaders play a crucial role because of their unique position to:

  • Represent the voices of the underrepresented groups in company conversations
  • Communicate the contents of those meetings back to the group

This intermediary role demands a specific set of skills to drive DEIB. As one participant said:

“The role of ERG leaders in fostering a DEIB culture is to create an environment where people can openly express themselves and share ideas that add value to the company. They are responsible for communication between their members and senior leaders to ensure ideas are heard.

Some of the important skills identified for ERG leaders involve:

  • Event planning
  • Group facilitation
  • The ability to translate the group's needs to business leaders
  • The flexibility to work with diverse groups

In addition to bridging the gap between underrepresented groups and org management, ERG leaders also need to be a coach—someone who holds up a mirror to help others look intrinsically within themselves.

Participants also highlighted the importance of other skills that can complement the ERG leader role in disrupting and pushing the envelope within orgs:

  • Persuasion
  • Influence
  • Persistence
  • Advocacy skills, including promise-keeping, and protecting the identities and feelings of ERG members

As one participant emphasized and stated, ERG leaders should act as protectors while advocating for underrepresented groups:

“ERG leaders should protect the names of their group members—for example, being mindful when a group member wants to remain anonymous or may not be ready to take on a responsibility.”

Clarity should be used for skills identification

When it comes to identifying skills for DEIB, we had general agreement among roundtable participants that certain terms need more clarity and clearer definitions.

For example, “growth mindset” came up frequently as something that’s essential for DEIB. However, we found a lack of clarity about what exactly growth mindset really means, and whether it’s a skill or not. In addition, a few participants also expressed general apprehension that this term has become a buzzword and is overused in the context of DEIB. One participant explained:

“I have seen growth mindset come up in many instances—it is such a leadership term. Not clear what we mean by that—whether it’s an individual attribute or relative to the org culture.”

As the discussion unfolded, a few other skills—such as caring, vulnerability, optimism, resiliency, and humility—were highlighted as being necessary for DEIB. However, we lacked consensus on whether these terms should be categorized as general skills or skills only within the context of DEIB.

For example: One participant mentioned that optimism—on its own—could lead people to believe that things are already in a good state for everyone. But, when optimism is paired with eagerness to learn and evolve, that’s when it can be most effective for DEIB purposes.

Similar skills have different applications across job levels

Many skills required for fostering a DEIB culture were highlighted as crucial skills for all groups, including:

  • Change management
  • Critical thinking
  • Self-awareness
  • Active listening
  • Emotional intelligence

While we observed similarities in DEIB skills across job levels, it was equally interesting to analyze and understand how these similarities were discussed during the roundtable in terms of their applications.

For example, change management applied to all 4 groups:

  • Employees: focusing on an individual’s ability to deal with change that comes with innovation, ambiguity, and complexity associated with DEIB
  • Managers: skills focusing on being receptive to new ways of thinking and modeling new behaviors to uphold the org’s DEIB values
  • Senior leaders: skills focusing of being more operational—mainly focusing on org culture change and implementing large-scale behavior change to foster DEIB
  • ERG leaders: focusing more on bottom-up change—being disruptive and pushing DEIB efforts up through the ranks to stick

By examining a similar skill across job levels, it became evident in our discussion that the relevance and application of a skill is dependent on contextual factors.

Defining DEIB skills in more granular terms could better inform an org’s skill training programs and improve diagnostic skills assessments.


We're extremely grateful to the attendees who enriched the conversation by sharing their thoughtful ideas and experiences. And, as always, we welcome your suggestions and feedback at [email protected].

Insights on DEIB & Skills

Posted on Tuesday, May 4th, 2021 at 2:45 PM    

In March 2021, we launched a new study on DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging) and skills. As part of our ongoing research, we recently gathered leaders for a research roundtable focused on this topic.

The focus of the discussion was to understand the skills critical for fostering DEIB and how orgs can effectively develop them.

Some of the specific questions we discussed include:

  • What are the skills crucial for DEIB?
  • How might we scientifically identify those critical skills?
  • How can learning leaders make sure DEIB-critical skills are being developed?
  • How can DEIB leaders make sure skills is a focus of their DEIB efforts?

Mindmap of DEIB & Skills Roundtable

The mindmap below outlines the conversations that transpired as part of this roundtable.

Note: This is a live document. Click the window and use your cursor to explore.

Key Takeaways

Our extremely engaging conversation helped us understand how leaders are thinking about and approaching skills identification and development for the purpose of fostering DEIB. While several interesting insights were shared, we identified these 5 key takeaways:

  1. Certain skills are crucial for DEIB at all levels
  2. Skills need to be pragmatic and teachable
  3. Employees can help determine which skills are important for DEIB
  4. DEIB should be an organizational priority
  5. Consistency is key to skills development

The following sections offer an overview of the major points for each key takeaway.

Certain skills are crucial for DEIB at all levels

General consensus among our leaders: Certain skills are needed by individuals irrespective of the levels they might be at within their org.

Skills—such as listening, empathy, and self-awareness—are consistently seen as foundational for building inclusive and equitable orgs. Such skills can be instrumental in enabling people to develop other skills as well. As 1 leader pointed out:

“People need comfort with differences. People cannot approach intermediate and advanced concepts if they cannot get past the innate challenge of difference (those who don't look, sound, or act like me). That applies to people of all levels.”

Because these skills are foundational, they should be embedded in all aspects of the talent lifecycle and the org’s culture, instead of creating separate trainings for them. This can help individuals apply those skills in the right context, when they need them.

While all agreed that certain skills are important for all individuals, participants also shared about the role of different levels in enabling these skills.

People leaders must play the role of cultivator for DEIB skills within their teams, while senior leaders need to create the conditions to enable skills development.

Leaders also need to create a vision and shared purpose, and manage their team’s energy and mental health. Managers, for their part, should create a psychologically safe environment for all.

Skills need to be pragmatic & teachable

Leaders agree that DEIB initiatives can’t be tokenistic: DEIB initiatives should focus on skills that are teachable and practical, and can be applied in the workplace. As such, leaders should be able to help managers understand, for instance, how they can:

  • Create psychologically safe environments
  • Bring in different perspectives

Some of the ways leaders can do this are by:

  • Making skills into real actions, behaviors, and rituals by thinking about the everyday practices of inclusion that can be incorporated in meetings, for example, always reading the room during meetings (to gage attendees’ actions and reactions), and asking questions such as who’s in the room, who should be there, and who’s at the decision table; as 1 leader noted:

“That’s where inclusion is first experienced and where those practices can be embedded.”

  • Developing exercises that can help create awareness, such as writing down any time someone says a questionable word and noting how often they use it

Employees can help determine which skills are important for DEIB

When it comes to identifying skills that are important for fostering DEIB, leaders were clear: Ask the employees.

In order to determine DEIB skills, orgs should have employees identify instances in which they felt included and what actions enabled them to experience it.

Some of the ways orgs can do that include:

  • Surveys to ask employees about their perceptions
  • 360 assessments for employee feedback
  • Talking to employees (i.e., interviews, focus groups)
  • Leveraging employee resource groups (ERGs)

Beside engaging the employees, another helpful way to identify DEIB skills is to leverage external perspective by, for example, having leaders talk with clients and customers. External thought leadership can also be a great source for clarity and knowledge around such skills.

Tech and data can help in identifying opportunities that drive these skills. For example, organizational network analysis (ONA) can be used to identify:

  • People who might have DEIB skills
  • Who they’re connected to
  • Their areas of influence

Leaders also suggested using platforms like Glassdoor to understand why people leave the org and to look at data from exit interviews.

DEIB should be an organizational priority

When asked about how orgs can make sure that DEIB skills are included in employee development efforts, leaders believed that DEIB should be an organizational priority. Everybody needs to be responsible for driving it and be given the means to make it happen. As stated by 1 leader:

“Give individuals and teams the autonomy to DO DEIB, not just learn or talk about it.”

Which is why, as leaders shared, all skills learning should incorporate a DEIB lens. A shared example from the leaders: When orgs create learning to help people managers deliver better feedback, they should ensure that they talk about delivering feedback to different personas, age groups, races, etc.

Some of the ways orgs can ensure that skills learning as part of employee development is impactful include:

  • Encouraging interaction and interpersonal dialogue to give feedback on skills learned (as opposed to it being a siloed experience)
  • Creating conversations, sharing each other’s stories, and learning from one another across different levels (i.e., national vs local settings, manager to employee, peer to peer) instead of an “instructor” teaching the concepts.

Consistency is key to skills development

An essential part of the successful application of DEIB skills is consistency in practicing and making them an integral part of daily activities, rather than something to learn about once in a while. For example, constant driving of DEIB vocabulary into the org can help develop those skills as it promotes and encourages inclusive practices.

An essential part of the successful application of DEIB skills is consistency in practicing and making them an integral part of daily activities.

One leader shared this: Too often, development programs provide information with little / no follow-up and evaluation—or opportunities to practice and apply the lessons / new ways of thinking, doing, and being. Change in behavior and mindset requires continuous practice.

This consistent approach and practice can also help overcome one of the biggest challenges to the application of DEIB skills: It’s ultimately up to each individual to apply them. As 1 leader put it:

"The individual practice and application is where the change really takes place. Ultimately, this is very individualistic and how we shift culture.”


We're extremely grateful to the attendees who enriched the conversation by sharing their thoughtful ideas and experiences. And, as always, we welcome your suggestions and feedback at [email protected].

RedThread Research is an active HRCI provider