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Time to Focus on Your Best Performers

Your highest-performing employees may be just the ones most likely considering leaving your organization for another opportunity, especially since those with the strongest skills are generally also those in the highest demand. Keeping those employees is paramount for your organization's success.

Friday, February 14, 2014
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As the U.S. economy continues to show signs of life, organizations everywhere are slowly regaining their optimism. Recent job numbers show that applications for unemployment benefits are dropping and most months the jobs report continues to show a healthy net increase in the number of private-sector opportunities. The fact that companies are again hiring is good news, of course. But as employers, leaders, and Human Resources

executives, we need to be aware that job growth also means more opportunities for employees who may wish to leave their current positions. If people are not happy where they are, if they're not fully engaged, they may decide to go elsewhere.

Research and practice tells us that if your employees are not fully engaged they are more likely to seek employment elsewhere, i.e. to jump ship. In addition, as we see an increase in employment, people who have until now chosen to stay with their current employer may very well begin looking for other options that are more in line with their needs. A recent Yale University study of job mobility patterns over a 30-year period found that job mobility dramatically increases after a recession. To retain high-performing employees, it is vital to identify effective strategies to engage and retain your top talent.

A key element in employee retention is employee empowerment. Employee empowerment is not just a recent buzz word; it is in fact a planned and continued effort to provide employees with the ability to grow professionally, to take risks, and to make decisions on their own. The benefits of employee empowerment are well known. A small-business series published in the Houston Chronicle confirms that employee empowerment results in improved productivity, overall cost reductions and improved morale (just to name a few), all elements that directly relate to employee retention.

We recommend four specific ways to lay the groundwork for the kinds of empowerment that lead to highly engaged employees (and, therefore, to increased retention of your best performers):

Engage in Authentic and Transparent Conversations. This may sound simple, but too often we've seen leaders err on the side of sharing too little information with their teams rather than too much. In a Forbes article from 2011, leadership development consultant Kristi Hedges wrote that "authenticity is paramount and palpable." She goes on to say that, "We are drawn to people as individuals, not as concepts such as business owner or boss. Great leaders take the time to really know others." Engaged employees want to work for leaders who are self-aware, sharing, and trusting. That starts with openness. That openness models a behavior that your employees will pick up on and likely begin to model with their peers.

Challenge People. Often very talented people can fall into a "comfort zone," a particular set of responsibilities where they feel safest. Empowering people also means pushing them a little bit and stretching them to find the edges of their comfort zones while at the same time providing the support that allows them to effectively face these new challenges. According to Jackson and Parry's 2011 book titled A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book about Studying Leadership, this practice of providing learning opportunities for your employees, coupled with demonstrating authentic and transparent leadership, increases the likelihood of dedicated and engaged followership.

Encourage Risk Taking. David Packard, American philanthropist and a founding half of Hewlett-Packard, said this: "Take risks. Ask big questions. Don't be afraid to make mistakes; if you don't make mistakes, you're not reaching far enough." How often do we, as leaders, encourage rather than discourage risk taking? Engaged employees want to take chances, want to try new things, and followers who work in an environment where they are trusted to learn from their mistakes are more likely to increase their discretionary efforts. Sure, they'll fall down, and that's when it's a leader's job to help them up. So let them take chances; let them reach "far enough."

Give Trust. Too often in our culture we talk of having to earn trust, as if trust is some currency that can be passed from hand to hand. In our view, trust is something to give as well as earn, and one way to engage effectively with your employees is simply to assume trust. As often as not, your lack of trust may end up being self-fulfilling. Try it the other way, giving trust rather than forcing it to be earned. In the words of Susan Scott, author of the book Fierce Leadership, "Don't just hold them accountable -- hold them able!" You'll be amazed at how often people will live up to your expectations -- and will trust you all the more for trusting them.

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These four strategies serve to create environments where employees will be more willing to step up or lean in, more willing to challenge themselves, and more willing to assume accountability for results. The four strategies help you to create an environment where people feel empowered. Empowered employees will fuel your company -- and will want to stay on your ship -- versus someone else's.

We note, however, that employee empowerment also brings with it some changes for leaders. For many leaders it may seem easier to manage with a directed approach, but "micro-management" will in fact stifle employee empowerment. As Richard Porterfield, author of "The Perils of Micromanagement" writes: "Managers who insist on being involved in every detail demoralize their employees, add unnecessary stress to their own lives, and endanger their organization's long-term success." Leaders need to recognize that empowering their staff means they may need to learn new leadership skills.

There's also the question of organizational alignment. One of the key elements of employee empowerment is that employees make decisions and take risks. You should align your teams and departments to ensure collaboration but also to focus on achieving the organizational goals. If your organization is not aligned to create awareness of what other groups are doing, as well as a clear understanding of the organizational goals, empowered employees will not be able to help your organization be successful.

We encourage you to begin practicing these four simple strategies for retaining your high-performing employees. Start with one team or one department to begin with and learn from that experience. Leaders who engage and empower employees to  achieve the organization's goals provide an opportunity for individuals and teams to contribute to the overall success of the organization. That success, and the empowering behaviors that lead to it, are the keys to retaining your best employees.

Renee Charney is the Founder and President of Charney Coaching & Consulting LLC, a New Hampshire-based leadership and organizational-consulting company. She can be reached at rcharney@charneycc.com. Carol A. Gravel is an associate professor of human resource management at Franklin Pierce University, where she is the program director for the MBA/HRM program and is the faculty advisor for the Franklin Pierce University SHRM student chapter. She can be reached at gravelc@franklinpierce.edu.

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