Effective leaders know what it takes to build their team. They invest a significant proportion of time and money supporting them in growing their skills and learning how to work together to produce effective results. They make plans and have a vision in terms of what each team member can contribute to the business. Low staff turnover is a sound indicator of a leader’s ability to retain talent and build capabilities. The effective leader knows it makes sense to invest in keeping good people happy because, over time, a return on investment is realised in performance and results.
If you run a business and struggle with talent retention, how do you react when a team member decides to leave? Do you generally see it coming? Or does it come as a shock? If so, you’re not alone. As a leadership coach, most leaders and business owners I work with are invariably surprised or even shocked when one of their team members resigns. At a personal level, the leaders I work with often also recognise feelings of hurt when a team member chooses to leave. And then reality sinks in. They know their team member’s departure from the business will leave a gap in their overall capabilities. They also understand that they will have to start the costly recruitment and capability-building process all over again to cover the vacancy.
So how do you prevent all this from happening in your business? What can you do to keep your team engaged? And how do you not get blindsided when a team member chooses to leave? This article focuses on the key areas to look into when a team member resigns and you didn't see it coming, and what you can do to prevent it from happening in the future.
Pay attention to what’s going on within yourself and your team
We all have a tendency to look away from the things that cause us discomfort or that challenge the way we see things. Margaret Heffernan explores this further in her book, Willful Blindness. She explains how we turn a blind eye in order to feel safe, avoid conflict, reduce anxiety, and protect prestige. How does this play out in the workplace? Sometimes we want to think all is going well within the team, and we ignore the signs that could indicate a lack of engagement or challenges. The same applies to team members who avoid addressing their issues, hoping they will improve, until suddenly those issues become insurmountable, driving their decision to leave. Ignoring issues points to an unhealthy relationship with awareness.
Ask yourself the following questions when awareness of potential issues in the team is lacking:
- What are you avoiding when conversing with your team?
- What are you resisting hearing from them? Which matters do you struggle to ‘be with’?
- Are there problems occurring that you don’t hear about directly from your team?
You may find these conversations uncomfortable. Or maybe you are afraid of what you might hear. Perhaps you convince yourself you're too busy or believe it should be them coming to you if they have an issue. No matter what is getting in the way, the reality of what your team is dealing with won’t go away just because you ignore it. The matters we avoid looking at or discussing will usually be the ones that will come back and bite us.
Based on my experience as a leadership coach, many times it is the vulnerability mood, as defined in Ashkan Tashvir’s book, BEING, that gets in the way.
“The vulnerability Mood is impacted by the concerns you have with respect to how you are being perceived or thought of in different situations. Vulnerability is how you are being when confronted or exposed to perceived threats, ridicule, attacks or harm (emotional or physical). Being truly vulnerable is when you are okay with your imperfections. It is considered the quality of being with your authentic Self without obsessive concern over the impression you are making. Vulnerability is the pathway to generating trust and building powerful relationships. The opposite of vulnerability is considered to be closed or guarded.”
[Tashvir, A. (2021). BEING (p. 233). Engenesis Publication]
A healthy relationship with vulnerability is fundamental if you want to generate sufficient trust for team members to have open and honest conversations with you. On the flip side, it takes vulnerability (and courage) for you to speak up about them too. Shifting your relationship with vulnerability is one of the most transformational experiences you can have. It opens up possibilities and conversations that may have been closed to you before.
The ‘stay interview’
An effective strategy I have seen implemented within workplaces is the ‘stay interview’. This involves having one-on-one conversations with team members to understand the factors that encourage them to stay in their job.
Understanding why team members stay allows you to build on what is working and attend to the factors that may be jeopardising their job satisfaction. It is a strategy that raises your awareness and theirs to the benefits of building a mutually beneficial partnership. It also helps you keep your finger on the pulse so you can anticipate changes before or as they arise.
Effective questions to ask during a stay interview include:
- When you get ready for work each day, what do you most look forward to?
- Why do you choose to stay in your job with us?
- What situations would cause you to look for work elsewhere?
- When was the last time you thought about leaving? What prompted it?
- If you could change anything about the way we operate, what would it be?
- What, if anything, are you uncomfortable telling me?
The stay interview is based on the premise of learning, awareness and understanding. It adopts a coaching rather than a directing leadership style, and the results go far beyond the information exchanged. The conversation generated creates a culture where people feel valued and able to voice their concerns. It also encourages leaders and staff to be willing to make things work in partnership. I have heard of someone's role being adjusted to better suit their skills, flexible work arrangements being put in place to help a team member balance home and work responsibilities, and many other examples that encourage talent retention.
Talent retention begins with awareness, followed by being vulnerable enough to ask, listen and act on what you hear. I encourage you to start by being proactive around conversations so you are no longer shocked if people leave. Not only will awareness and vulnerability increase your retention, but it will also shift the culture of your business. There is no better time to start than now. The cost of not doing something might be higher than you are willing to pay.