Slowing Down an Employee Exodus

Research shows that there's an effective way—beyond money—to reduce high turnover. The latest from best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry.

In some ways turnover helps any business: new employees infuse the company with fresh ideas and perspectives that can help with innovation and competitiveness. This kind of churn is natural as people seek new employment opportunities for growth, for better engagement, or for simply better compensation.

But high turnover creates a problem if an organization struggles to retain key employees. One common cause of losing the wrong people: disconnects between leaders and their team.

I remember working with Dave, the vice president of sales at a mid-sized service company. In recent years, the average tenure of his direct reports had fallen to just over 12 months. Dave was dismissive of the trend, asserting that sales roles are typically high turnover because many people struggle with the frequent rejection sales calls can bring. Of course, it wasn't that simple. Both high and low performers were quitting, but Dave hadn't looked that closely.

His lack of awareness was contributing to a problem that was not only affecting his own success, but also the success of the company. Revenues dipped as talented sales people left and inexperienced new hires faced a steep learning curve. At the same time, the company was continually diverting financial resources to recruit, hire, and train new employees who, despite these efforts, were becoming less likely to stick around.

His insistence that low retention just came with the territory obfuscated one of the main reasons many people who are good at their jobs seek to leave: There was no shared vision motivating them. They felt they were only there to meet a sales quota but weren't engaged in any deeper way. Their main driver came from the need to hit a target and the fear of reprisals if that target was missed.

A clear, inspiring vision is vital for team motivation. Research done by Richard Boyatzis of the business school at Case Western University found that leaders who can articulate a vision that their team shares and connects with are viewed as highly effective by both peers and subordinates. When people contribute to work that matters to them, there is an instinctive desire to achieve those goals.

To overcome these challenges, I recommended Dave spend a day with his team and perform a stakeholder analysis. Shifting the focus from how sales success impacts his team to how it impacts the company and their customers reminded Dave that their work doesn't happen in a vacuum. A study done by Deborah Ancona and David Caldwell at MIT’s Sloan School of Management showed the need for teams to balance internal and external focus. The more inward facing a team is, the more likely they are to become isolated and disengaged from the larger mission.

Realizing how their work was essential for the business and the customers they served gave Dave's team something more to engage with. Their success didn't just mean bigger commission checks, it meant satisfied customers and a healthy company balance sheet to invest in a deeper service portfolio.

Dave, in short, sharpened two competencies of emotional intelligence: Inspirational Leadership and Organizational Awareness. These can be powerful tools in talent retention, because they help leaders ensure their employees are engaged. And coaching in emotional intelligence can go a long way to ensure leaders have enough awareness to make a change when their approach is no longer effective.