Stop the Exodus

January 19, 2022

Over the past several months, an alarming number of leaders have shared with me about the challenges they are facing with attrition.  Some are particularly disheartened saying, “What can I do?  I can only control so much.”

There is no doubt that employee engagement and retention connect to a host of factors that are out of our control.  But even if you feel like a managerial cog in a gargantuan corporate wheel, there still are a number of things within your control that you can do to have an impact.

It has been said that people join companies but leave bosses.  There’s no doubt that’s true.  Fundamentally, if we’re a pain to work with, when the market is flooded with demand, folks are going to walk in a hurry.  Obviously, if we’re an over-demanding, self-adulating, credit-stealing, unrealistic, legalistic, out-of-emotional-control narcissist, “our” people won’t be “our” people for long!  But the purpose of this article is not to talk about those reasons for attrition at all.  I want to take a few moments to talk about what you can do when you are a good boss and your people are still leaving.

To begin, let’s again set aside all of the things that are out of your control – things like unfavourable decisions by executive leadership, limited salary or promotion structures defined by the company, promotion “bell curves” which limit your ability to promote despite the fact that you have more than your “allotted percentage” worthy of a hike and so on.  Beyond these obvious ones, your organisational ecosystem may be laden with (many) other conditions which act as deterrents to retention.  In fact, it is possible that your executive leadership may tom-tom “retention” and “engagement” but simultaneously clip your wings to solve the very problem they are asking you to fix.  Let’s put all of that aside!  Beyond all of these things which are largely out of your control, what is within your control?

One of the most valuable tools within your control is to leverage behavioural science to better understand the unique motivators of each of your employees so that you can connect with them at a level beyond the commercials.  A great place to begin is to familiarise yourself with any of the many four-quadrant psychometric tools (e.g., Social Styles, DISC, etc.) and create a customised engagement strategy for each employee.  While this approach is incredibly effective with any stakeholder (supervisors, clients, direct reports, etc.), I’d like to focus our attention in this article on how to apply one of these tools specifically to heightening employee engagement for the purpose of retention.

Let’s begin by just understanding the basics.  If you are unfamiliar, four-quadrant psychometrics essentially classify people into four categories.  Since Social Styles and DISC are the most prevalent, I’ll use that nomenclature for explanation.  The four basic types are:

• Driver / D
• Expressive / I
• Amiable / S
• Analytical / C

Most of us are a mix of at least two of these types and many are a blend of three.  When we’re talking of focusing on leveraging this science for retention, we particularly want to focus on the one or two personality types that are most prevalent.

Obviously, it is beyond the scope of this small article to get into the minutia and nuances of these models. But, here are a few thoughts to help get you started:

  • Drivers / Ds are outcome-focused people. They are highly driven by results. They want to climb mountains and conquer things. They tend to have a very strong internal drive and are highly motivated by a challenge. When you’re trying to engage a Driver / D, one of the keys is to keep providing them with challenges. Drivers / Ds get antsy if they feel even the slightest hint of stagnation. One of the keys to engaging a Driver / D is to keep feeding them more challenges.
  • Expressives / Is love change. If there’s something an Expressive / I hates, it is doing the same thing over and over. The monotony is agonising for them. One of the quickest ways to drive your Expressives / Is to start looking at other alternatives is to saddle them with the same task for years on end. A second key thing to remember with Expressives / Is is that they generally need attention – public attention. A simple way to at least “keep them in the game” is to (genuinely) praise them in public settings. Of course, this praise cannot be artificial and should not derail your relationship with others equally worthy of appreciation. But, the simple principle is if you see something in an Expressive / I that is praiseworthy say it out loud, on purpose, and in public.
  • Amiables / Ss are the quietest of the lot, and many times you don’t know what they are thinking. Even though they are less vocal about their concerns, their emotions are real. One of the greatest disturbances to Amiables / Ss is change. In this way, they are pretty much the opposite of the Expressives / Is. Organisation transformations, particularly ones which are not well defined, tend to cause Amiables / Ss to feel unsafe because their heart’s desire is to retain the status quo. Change is a fact, but it is important to help the Amiables / Ss still feel secure in the midst of it. If they feel unsafe, they will naturally begin desiring a more secure environment. Granted, because they dislike change, they will stay on board for a while, but eventually, if the situation remains “unsafe” from their point of view, they’ll be out the door. Fortunately, Amiables / Ss also highly value genuine personal relationships. So one of the best ways to medicate a situation of extreme change with your Amiable / S employees is to spend genuine one-on-one time with them outside of work. That 30-minute coffee with an Amiable / S talking openly and honestly might do more to save their continuation in the company than you think! And finally,
  • Analyticals / Cs struggle with ambiguity. They want the world to be black or white. The amorphous nature frequently associated with corporate change, whether that be intentional or inadvertent, leaves the Analyticals / Cs struggling to know exactly where they stand. As they seek clarity, if answers are ambiguous, that sets them off further. It is critical in seeking to retain Analyticals / Cs to try to give them as much clarity as possible. Try to tell them everything you know (or at least are permitted to tell them). Try to spell it out as black and white as possible. And most importantly be straight about what you don’t know. Sometimes, at least the specific qualification of what is not yet clear is a good second-best for Analyticals / Cs.

Well, I hope this small bit helps.  As I said, this is only the starting point of how behavioural science can be leveraged in effective stakeholder management for the purpose of retention.

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