According to the “2021 Talent Attraction and Retention Survey,” 73% of employers are struggling to attract new employees and 61% expressed difficulty retaining their workers. Almost more concerning, employers expect their problems to persist in 2022.
Employee retention, or lack thereof, is a result of a combination of factors, but the number one reason people leave a job or a company has been the same for as long as I can remember: leadership — specifically, the employee’s relationship with their direct supervisor or manager.
In my work as a coach the past 15 years, working with leaders at all levels — from the corner office to the working leads on the production floor, I’ve uncovered three important lessons from leadership training that somehow seem to get lost or left out in actual practice. The pressure to perform can draw even the most conscientious of leaders “off sides” and away from their best intentions. Could you improve with respect to these basic tenets?
1. It is not your job to have all the answers. Ask more questions.
In coach training, we spend a lot of time learning how to ask questions. Humans are naturally more comfortable having the answers than asking questions. It does not matter how many times I hear ‘there are no silly questions.’ That knowledge will never erase the feelings of embarrassment that my brain automatically recalls from childhood experiences.
When you are moving fast and people have a lot on their plates, it can feel like you are adding more to their workload by asking a question — and relieving them of pain by having an answer. And that can be okay some of the time. But you take the bat out of their hands by giving the answer all the time, especially when it comes to the more complex problems.
One caution when it comes to questions: watch out for the “guess what I’m thinking” game. Use questions as an opportunity to teach, but also to learn — to learn how others think and what they know. Then you can help them fill in the gaps and see other perspectives, all while modeling that it is safe not to have all the answers.
2. You can not make people like each other. You CAN help them understand each other.
A key part of a supervisor’s role is to reduce “interpersonal tension” and create “intellectual tension.” Asking more questions is part of creating intellectual tension. Strive to create a safe, inclusive environment to help reduce interpersonal tension.
We have all met people we don’t like or that our instincts tell us not to trust. And most of us don’t enjoy the prospect of having to resolve the kinds of conflict that can come from a clash of personalities, beliefs or perspectives. It is not your job to solve all your team’s conflicts, but it is your job to teach them how to do it themselves. And while you can not make them like each other, you can help them understand each other.
Conflict is a normal part of a healthy, high performing team. But un-resolved conflict is toxic. It cheapens achievement and depletes feelings of belonging. Over time, trust dissolves; engagement suffers. People don’t feel safe to be themselves at work. Creativity & problem solving are stifled.
In your role as supervisor or manager, it’s up to you to intervene & help your people resolve conflicts — and the sooner the better. One technique we teach new supervisors is to establish their team’s bill of rights — the right to being treated with respect, to being heard, and to make mistakes & fail (and learn). Some organizations have established value statements for this purpose. Either way, as a leader you can NEVER turn your back on the team’s bill of rights or your company’s values. If your focus is making peace in the moment to get all parties back to work, you are on the wrong track. Instead, make your purpose to restore feelings of belonging for both/all parties, and also to teach them how to resolve and work through conflict.
3. You can’t make people have fun; you CAN make room for fun.
“If work was supposed to be fun, they wouldn’t have called it work.” Heard that one before? It popped up again last week at a seminar I was teaching. I get that work doesn’t have to be fun, and sometimes it isn’t. That said, my most challenging work assignments were also the most memorable — not because of the work we were doing, but because of the team I was working with. Having fun together was a way to step back from the work and enjoy each other as friends and as humans.
These days with worker shortages, supply chain issues and customer demands — it can be difficult (and counter-intuitive) to let your foot off the gas and take a minute to rest & breathe, let alone to celebrate or laugh or enjoy each other.
As leader, you have to create the space, to make room for fun. Avoid fun that “makes fun of” and look for the kind that “makes fun with.” The kind of fun you want is the kind that builds trust and understanding, not the kind that breaks it apart.
Celebrate something — or nothing. Celebrations don’t have to be earned to help your team focus on what they have in common as people. When you create the space for fun, you teach your team that you value belonging as much as achievement & contribution. Share wins. Cheer survival of another tough day. Find something about life and each other to appreciate. Be a leader with a reputation for appreciation.
Big results can come from small changes. What small changes could you make today that would have a positive impact on your team or organization?
As a leader, everything you do, everything you don’t do, everything you say, and everything you don’t say — it all matters. Your employees assume you know — and that you approve — of everything that happens inside your company. Are you practicing these fundamentals? If so, your next challenge may be to engage with other leaders in your organization to support them in asking more often, engaging in conflict, or showing more appreciation.
Competing for a smaller talent pool and dealing with the standard challenges that come with retaining employees, it is more crucial than ever for leaders to build strong teams and to uphold a safe, inclusive, fun work environment.
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