In 2016 Harvard Business Review published an article that listed the usual reasons why people quit their jobs: “because they don’t like their boss, don’t see opportunities for promotion or growth, or are offered a better gig (and often higher pay)1.” It also highlighted one somewhat surprising reason: because of “their sense of how they’re doing compared with other people in their peer group, or with where they thought they would be at a certain point in life.” Humans are competitive by nature, and the drive to “keep up with the Jones’s” lies behind this reason for quitting jobs.
A more recent article published on the Harvard Business Review website highlighted three things managers can do to help people want to stay in their jobs: “enable them to do work they enjoy, help them play to their strengths, and carve a path for career development that accommodates personal priorities.”2 All of these interests are very closely linked to employee engagement.
When an organization focuses purely on retention, it can achieve that by overpaying and asking very little of its employees. In that situation, though, employees will be compelled to stay for all the wrong reasons. Many large organizations take this approach because they are assessing metrics incorrectly. Some turnover is in fact good. The hungriest and best employees do tend to move around and change jobs, both within and between organizations.
That insatiable thirst for growth and new challenges motivates the best employees. To harness that power, organizations must focus not on retention but on engagement, which exists when an employee’s thirst for growth is fulfilled. Companies can drive engagement by providing new and interesting work and by challenging employees, teaching them new skills, and supporting them in their quest to grow.
Having the right talent philosophy is key to attracting and engaging the right employees. As organizations work to set their cultures, core values, and talent strategies, it can be useful for them to think of their managers as magnets. Most people think that a magnet attracts other metal objects, but, depending on its polarity, it can also repel metal objects.
Employee engagement starts with the boss. Many organizations have a mix of managers: some attract talent, and others repel talent. Bosses clearly play a key role in shaping an organization’s workforce. One size does not fit all, so it is critical that managers actively engage their direct reports individually and hold development dialogues with them.
It is also important for organizations to conduct pulse checks with employees to measure their engagement. This can be done formally via surveys and more informally through manager-led conversations. It is important that the organization is measuring the right things and not make the common mistake of confusing employee satisfaction (what someone gets from their employer: salary, work conditions, benefits, etc.) with employee engagement (what someone is willing to give to their organization). Engagement is the discretionary effort—the willingness to work extra time, to go above and beyond, to help others, and to be an ambassador for the company. Employees who are engaged at work are far less likely to entertain calls from headhunters and recruiters. They are content where they are and seek opportunities to make a difference in their current companies.
When organization suffer from an increase in turnover, the root cause might lie in how its managers are treating employees. By listening more closely to employees’ needs and concerns, managers can drive engagement and in turn improve retention.
1Harvard Business Review.2016. "Why People Quit Their Jobs." Harvard Business Review website, September, hbr.org/2016/09/why-people-quit-their-jobs..
2Lori Goler, Janelle Gale, Brynn Harrington, and Adam Grant. 2018. "Why People Really Quit Their Jobs." Harvard Business Review website, January 11, hbr.org/2018/01/why-people-really-quit-their-jobs.