The Psychology Behind Employee Retention

Why Are You Still Here?

Ever since the Hawthorne Studies in the late 1920’s we’ve known employees are not motivated by money alone. And yet, do a Google search for “employee retention” and you’ll find dozens of articles stating what we’ve known for generations: people want more than just money to find meaning in their work. The long work of human resources is to keep employees happy, so what’s the psychology behind employee retention?

Ask yourself why you’re still at your current job. Chances are, you derive some meaning or worthiness from your work, and that’s why you’re still there — all other things being equal. The need for meaning in our work is why turnover can be a positive occurrence: If you’ve lost the meaning in your work, or are no longer happy with what you’re doing, it’s best to do something else. Not only is it better for you, it’s better for the organization, and it could mean an influx of new skills, diversity or creativity.

In fact, there are entire books and TV shows about quitting your job to find a vocation that has more meaning. We live in a world where employees are more attuned to deriving meaning from their work than ever. In this eloquent article by Helena Kleine, she describes the disconnect between her parents’ generation — “just get a job” — and Generation Y, who has come to realize that if you are going to spend most of your adult life at work, you better enjoy it. This is why it’s more important than ever to consider how work provides meaning to employees.

Employee Motivations

How many times have you heard the term “dead-end job?” No one is going to advertise such a position. One of the biggest reasons for sticking with a position at any organization is the ability to move up the corporate ladder. So how can we provide a way to recognize talent, reward initiative and track progress that goes beyond the traditional “performed his/her duties” annual review? And how do we translate the data gained in better performance reviews into meaningful opportunities? Over time, this performance review data can be used to see what employees are truly passionate about, thus leading to better roles within the organization.

As Josh Bersin of Deloitte noted, this “talent mobility” is crucial to modern careers. Consider that if an employee is no longer challenged by their current role, a new role within the company might be a better fit. Why look elsewhere if an employee can tackle new things in a group they’re already familiar with?

Here’s the deal: talent today is mobile. Nurture that talent or it will leave. Unfortunately, too many technical experts are forced out of companies because their career paths are either “up” or “out” and “up” means “management,” taking them away from the work that gave their lives great meaning. To retain these valuable, highly competent workers, we must provide them with continuous growth. That growth comes from managers who recognize the impact of efforts across the organization, and who can nurture talent rather than just hang on to it.

Work Factors

The psychology behind retention might sound simple — give people meaningful work and the opportunity to advance. But how can we assist these efforts?

In order to keep talent within a company, you must offer:

  • Growth opportunities within the organization
  • Transparency, and the recognition of efforts across teams

Too often successes are team-specific and siloed, even though the work of each team is supportive of the entire company. When the entire organization can see what individuals are doing, and how they are contributing, the employee feels noticed and other managers in the company can spot rising stars. This transparency lends value to everyone’s work and showcases those who live the company’s values.

Talent is the multiplier. The more energy and attention you invest in it, the greater the yield. The time you spend with your best is, quite simply, your most productive time.

— Marcus Buckingham

This nurturing of talent has, in the past, been left largely to chance. Maybe you get a supervisor who acts as mentor and cheerleader, but maybe not. If retention is a priority in your organization you’ll spend the time needed to find the tools necessary to recognize and reward talent — before it goes elsewhere!

Imagine a system where accomplishments are tracked over the lifetime of an employee. Wouldn’t it be amazing to look back over four years of work and see the very first accomplishment? What if you could track your achievements over time? Even better, what if this recognition was seen by the entire company?

The Future: Predicting Seekers vs. Stayers

An interesting footnote to the psychology of employee retention is that we may, someday, be able to predict who will leave a company and who will stay. According to research, just as we have different personalities, some workers are more inclined to constantly be on the lookout for better opportunities. The theory is that we can look for a specific set of behaviors that indicate a propensity to leave, and target retention efforts to keep those individuals.

As Richard Branson puts it, “train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” If you are offering new challenges and further opportunities in a culture that fits the individual, there should be little reason (outside of forces beyond your control) for someone to leave an organization — it really is that simple!

Now that you’ve got an idea of the psychology behind employee retention, check out 18 awesome wellness program ideas — they will help retain your talent while losing unhealthy habits!

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