Employee Retention Tips for Managers

Why Good People Quit and How to Keep Them: Employee Retention Tips for Managers

Think about a job that you left where you were a rock star. Now think about one you left where you were simply, purely, competent.

Why did you leave in each case?

That question is especially important in today’s economy, where motivation in the workplace may be more critical than ever as we seek to keep both our rock stars and our reliable, fully-competent performers. These two groups will do much of the heavy lifting to keep our organizations alive until times improve.

How do we keep them around? You’ve heard plenty of theories of employee retention. Mine, I believe, go a little deeper than most and touch on crucial, underlying issues that keep an employee satisfied and working hard.

Existentialism, Dominance, and Motivation in the Workplace

Let’s start by talking about what psychologists commonly call the four existential challenges of human life:Hey, loosen your white-knuckle grip on the computer mouse and let’s actually dare to consider these issues. They may shed light on your current theories of employee retention.

  • Death/immortality (are we having fun yet?)
  • Freedom/responsibility
  • Isolation/connection
  • Meaninglessness/meaningfulness

Initially, this list may seem a bit removed from the typical theories of employee retention. But, understanding these fundamental human struggles and addressing them will do a lot to strengthen your relationship with your employees. You’ll create a stronger bond than you would through giving out gold stars or a bonus.

Addressing Deeper Human Issues in Your Employees

If you address these existential issues you’ll get a deeper level of commitment and motivation in the workplace. People want to be inspired in their work. They want freedom, connection, meaningfulness and, ultimately, some small way to move beyond being mortal. Many say it’s the goal of existence to find a way to “live” somehow beyond this life, even if it’s only in others’ memories. I believe this has to do with dominance and immortality, and that it plays a role in workplace employee retention. Let me explain.

Sometimes we forget that we’re biological animals. In the animal world – our world when the surface is peeled back a bit – top dogs have better odds of surviving. Not only that, isn’t the drive to be top dog in nature tied to that existential idea of immortality or passing on one’s genetic material to the next generation? The higher we are on the social food chain, the better the chance that we’ll leave a legacy.

What follows is that if you’re managing out of a need to dominate, you might be discouraging and frustrating those who report to you. They see no way to achieve dominance. If you’re managing in a way to inspire others so that they rise up the food chain, ironically, that’s the best way to improve your status. Is there a more sustainable way to lift your boat than through the rising tide of your employees’ success?

The Reasons People Quit

The desires for freedom, connection, meaningfulness, and immortality all relate back to our list of why good people quit.

Here’s why good performers leave jobs:

  • Weak relationship with manager. Great employees who feel put down or shunned by their manager tend to leave. They feel isolated and dominated.
  • Unplugged from the organization somehow. After they lose close co-workers or the company culture evolves so they no longer feel they fit, some people will bolt. Here’s isolation, once again.
  • Lack in job responsibility, job content, or job environment (including colleagues). When an employee’s work isn’t interesting enough for them they’ll seek meaningfulness elsewhere.
  • Underpaid. You shouldn’t mess this up. Always pay employees fairly. Use market salary data to try to avoid what I call the “knucklehead factor,” where an employee leaves because their pay was set too low. They want the freedom that money brings.

This list probably sounds familiar to you, though the existential twist may be new. Before we leave this list, there’s one key issue about pay for you to remember: fair pay is not enough to keep someone. To retain a top performer you must address the other issues listed above, as well.

What Do You Do Next?

Now that you understand why people leave, you can address the issues by way of some of the recommendations below. Your retention and profitability will likely improve – in my experience, sometimes significantly.

  • Encourage motivation in the workplace by giving people meaningful work to do; strengthen their relationship to their work
  • Strengthen the relationship between employee and manager
  • Strengthen the relationship between co-workers
  • Build a company in which employees can be proud
  • Give them work and leadership opportunities that will further their success

Then, of course, pay them well (competitively), so that pay doesn’t become a reason for them to leave, a.k.a. the knucklehead factor.

Here are some concrete ideas to encourage retention and motivation in the workplace:

  1. Give people a voice. Establish a two-way communication pathway so people can openly express their ideas and issues, and have them heard meaningfully.
  2. Provide frequent reminders of why employees’ work is meaningful. For example, in a recent newsletter published at my work we included a customer compliment letter with this lead: “Roberta (not her real name) as employee of the month? A customer nominates her. So how cool is it that we work for a company where we each can make a difference like that in our customers’ lives, where we each can be ‘employee of the month’ – every day?”
  3. Don’t micromanage experienced, reliable employees. Here’s a definition of micromanaging that may help you decide if you’re doing it:  If you’re telling an employee not just what to do, but also how to do it, you may be micromanaging.
  4. Don’t direct or control. The biggest relationship-builder may be to broaden our role as manager so we inspire our employees. Warren Bennis and a number of other leadership gurus paint the distinction between directing and controlling – which can weaken relationships with co-workers – and aligning and inspiring – which strengthens relationships. #2 in this list is an example of an attempt to align and inspire. #5 below is another example.
  5. Take 100% responsibility for the success of the people reporting to you. Take, for example, your lowest performer. If 100 other managers had the chance to manage that person, at least one manager – probably 10, maybe 30 – would be able to turn that employee around and lead them to success. So it’s 100% up to you to find the way to make that happen. If another manager could find a way, you can too. It’s your job.
  6. Model that which you seek. A quote from Gandhi applies well to the workplace. He said, “You must be the change you seek in the world.” So, our task as managers is the following:If you want to influence those who report to you, find a productive way to let them influence you. If you want to teach something to those who you manage, find a productive way to learn from them. If you want to trust those who you manage, find a productive way to trust them.
  7. Focus on intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, rewards. As author Alfie Kohn has written and many have shown, setting certain expectations then giving gold stars, rewards, and the like, can influence people. But the power of that influence is much less productive, especially over the long haul, than the ideas we’re dealing with here. All of the above conversation touches on basic, intrinsic needs that we all share as humans.

Remember the Big Picture: You’re Dealing with Human Beings

In summary, if we address people’s existential (and intrinsic) needs, especially the need to succeed, we’ll go a very long way towards not just keeping our great performers, but building a bond strong enough to sustain and build on that great performance.

That’s the view from here.

As always, your thoughts?


Stuart Jennings

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