Bosses who notice an employee's performance drop in one aspect of the job shouldn't immediately think the employee is slacking off, new research shows.

A study led by a University of Toronto professor discovered that in many cases the employee has just shifted and refocused his efforts on a different set of tasks, which should be considered a positive sign of adaptability.

"Our paper is drawing attention to the measurement of performance, that refocusing is something that's important in the workplace, exists in the workplace, and for organizations to think about it as part of the job," said the study's author, Maria Rotundo, whose conclusions are based on statistics of more than 700 professional basketball players.

Researchers assessed the players to see how they shifted their focus on different on-court skills and tasks over a period of several years. For example, a player who scored well one year might show a shift in focus toward rebounding in another season as a way to respond to their team's needs or a change in the coach's instructions.

About 10 percent of players refocused their efforts over time, which made them more likely than their peers to play in the league for another year. The study's author believes the findings support the idea that refocusing among job tasks is an important component of employee adaptability and should be a part of overall performance assessments.

While Rotundo acknowledges there are numerous differences between professional sports and most workplaces, she says there are some parallels, including that NBA athletes are focused on a goal and must work together as a team to achieve it as they confront the different opponents, just as employees in a company must work together to face market competitors and achieve their company's goals.

In addition, just like basketball players who go through changes in their team's makeup, many workers must adapt to changes brought on by restructuring or the adoption of new technologies, requiring a refocus in their job's tasks.

"From a measurement perspective it's a fascinating area because the NBA players' performance is tracked meticulously," Rotundo said. "There's a wealth of data there."

The study, which was recently published in the Human Performancejournal, was co-authored by Paul Sackett of the University of Minnesota, Janelle Enns of the University of Lethbridge in Alberta and Sara Mann of the University of Guelph in Ontario.

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Why slacking off at work is a good thing
Bosses who notice an employee's performance drop in one aspect of the job shouldn't immediately think the employee is slacking off.