Listen Before They Quit: 5 Strategies to Retain Top Talent
If an employee quitting comes as a surprise to an employer, then both sides have failed at the relationship. For a company to function properly, both the employee and her manager have a responsibility to make it work. If there are problems, it’s up to all stakeholders to respectfully come together and try to fix them.
As a boss, it’s your job to provide a non-hostile work environment for your employees. You have to build a culture with mutual respect at the core so you can foster the channels of communication that are so essential to a successful management relationship.
Open communication is built on a premise of trust. Employees need to know that bringing problems to their manager won’t elicit a knee jerk reaction, anger, condescension, or any of the other things that make people feel like shit. They need to feel like they will be heard and that their concerns will be given serious thought. They need to feel safe.
If you can’t build that trust as a manager, you won’t know that your people are unhappy until they’re walking out the door and it’s too late to do anything about it.
I want to impress how incredibly difficult it can be for managers to foster this dynamic, especially (but not only) with junior hires. Even if you think you have it nailed, you may not. As leaders and managers, aspects of our ultra competitive personalities coupled with our roles in the organization can make us inherently intimidating. We see ourselves very differently than others see us. By default, many employees do not feel comfortable escalating major problems to their managers or leaders within the organization.
Think about it from the employee’s perspective: Will I look like a complainer? Will I make my manager angry? Will I undermine my own advancement? Am I wasting her time? If I have a problem with another member of the team, will talking to my manager get around and invite retribution? These are all questions that people think hard about before bringing substantive issues affecting their happiness at work to their managers.
Here are five strategies for a manager to foster an open relationship with the team.
1. Reach Out
You need to invite feedback by proactively reaching out to your team and encouraging them to share any major challenges they’re experiencing at work. This can happen because you’ve noticed something amiss, or just as part of your regular routine for checking in. At Looksharp, our managers schedule weekly one-on-ones with each member of their team. This practice provides a venue for employees to air their grievances and also builds a communicative relationship between the team and its leader. This meeting should be about removing roadblocks for the employee, ideally with an employee-set agenda.
2. Watch for Signals:
Keep a close eye not only on work performance, but also on tone, body language, energy, and presence. If people act disengaged, they are disengaged. Actively reach out to people on your team that seem disengaged and dig until you find the root cause. Sometimes people won’t want to share and sometimes they aren’t even fully aware of the factors leading to their own unhappiness. That’s OK, you can figure it out together.
As an employer, you have to seriously listen when somebody does come to you with an issue. Remember how many internal conflicts this person had to overcome to talk to you in the first place. Get it on your calendar that day if possible because you really don’t know how drastic of a situation you have on your hands. Get into a private space or even out of the office. Avoid distractions, make eye contact, and repeat back what you’re hearing to demonstrate your understanding. You don’t always have to solve everything in that moment, and it’s okay if you don’t have the answers. You can always ask for time to process and circle back later.
4. Do Something
There is always an action to be taken in response to employee issues, even if that action is to explain to the employee (respectfully) that they need to shift their own perspective or behavior. That’s part of professional development. Often, you will find that the employee has a legitimate problem that you have the ability to solve or help them solve.
5. Check Back Later
Sometimes you think a problem is solved, but the employee might not agree. Make sure you circle back and confirm that people feel better about the situation and, if they don’t, iterate on the problem solving together.
As an employee, if you don’t take advantage of the opportunity to communicate challenges to your manager, then it’s just as much on you as your boss if the job doesn’t work out. While a good manager will work hard to open up the lines of communication with her team and keep a pulse on how people are feeling, she’s not a mind reader.
If you’re unhappy in your role, take some time to try to figure out the key factors and use them as a basis for communication with your boss. It’s okay to not have it all figured out; the most important thing is to start the dialogue. A good manager will work through it with you.
If barriers need to be removed, then the manager can assess how to remove them. If you have too much on your plate, the manager can bring another person onto the team to balance out work load, or shuffle things around to evenly distribute it.
On the flip side, it could be your attitude or expectations that need to change, and then it’s on you to be open to that solution.
If your boss isn’t receptive to open communication, my best advice is to be more aggressive. By this point, you have nothing to lose. If you can’t get time, put it in an email. If the email goes ignored, escalate the issue above your manager. Just don’t stay quiet and assume issues will resolve themselves, because they usually won’t.
Whether you’re a manager or an employee, embracing a dedicated and receptive approach to open, honest communication will maximize the probability of success in your working relationship. It won’t always work out, but at least you’ve done everything you can. And if somebody says “I quit,” it won’t come as a surprise.