How to Avoid the Price of “I wish I Had Known He Felt That Way.”

It is not surprising that organizations are continuously trying to find clear solutions to better engage and retain their best employees because  turnover and disengagement are extraordinarily expensive. According to a Watson Wyatt study, a one standard deviation improvement in engagement is associated with a 1.9 increase in revenue per employee: “To put this in perspective, the typical employee in our sample works at a firm where productivity equals about $250,000 per employee. That means a significant improvement in engagement is associated with an increase in revenue per employee (productivity) of $4,675.”

And it’s not just recruiting and training time costs either. Once turnover and disengagement are noticeable by leaders, employees, and clients, it sends a message of instability and raises concerns that the company is not strong enough or successful enough to sustain it’s best people. That message reduces the value of the company in the eyes of everyone involved, which in turn may start a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Our client executives tell us this issue is not uncommon:“…turnover of top talent, especially in senior positions, has now become a monthly occurrence. Initially I thought it made sense in our competitive market, but keeping top talent is quickly becoming one of our top priorities…when senior people leave frequently, it affects the stability of the organization as a whole. I’m not just talking about recruiting; it sends a message that something is wrong.” – President, high-tech industry

One of the hardest issues to overcome in this situation is that people don’t share how they feel. When good managers in good companies know how their employees feel, they can do something about it. So you hear experts encouraging managers to ask employees and to truly listen. Good managers do so directly, not just through surveys and HR departments. But what if employees choose not to tell us how they feel?

The reasons employees don’t share their concerns and how they feel are as nuanced as the reasons underlying why managers don’t really listen. This can be attributed to the culture in the organization, the individual personality of manager or employee, the capacity of the system to change, the overloaded employees experience and more. The solution, however, is always the same – people need to change in some way.

In the case of the above high-tech company (who agreed to share their experience under the protection of their anonymity), the leading dynamic that resulted in high turnover and disengagement stemmed from a very accommodating president and an overly aggressive COO. To put it gently, the expectations of senior executives recruited by the president did not match the reality of interacting with the COO. This led to a more systemic problem. Investors, seeing this high turnover rate, started getting concerned about the value of their investment. Their best employees did the math and those who got good offers from other companies did not hesitate to take the new offer.

So what can you do if your best employees won’t tell you how they feel?

Figure out who needs to change and how: KCI’s Solution Assessment™ identifies who in the system needs to change in order for the team or organization to achieve desired outcomes and which Key Strategies those individuals or teams need to acquire. In most cases the people who need to change are not just the most obvious suspects. It is common to think that the “troublemaker” (in this case the COO) is the one who needs to change, but in reality other team members need to make changes as well.

Each case is different of course. Sometimes when healthy values don’t make their way down, the change has to focus on the values of middle management. Other times it is the end employees who need to grow out of their doubt and suspicion. While each case is unique, the solution is always the same: the first step is to find who needs to change and what about them needs to change.

Overcome resistance to change: people don’t share their concerns or how they feel for a reason, but even if you know what that reason is, you still need to overcome their resistance to change. Some of the resistance to change comes from the system, but in this case, even after the COO made some substantial changes, the team around it refused to trust that the change was real. Most people don’t jump happily into change. They fear it, they lack the ability to make the change they are required to make (in this case other senior executives needed to let go of whatever resentment they had toward their COO and the dynamic between the COO and the president, but some of them lacked the ability to let go of past perceptions). People fear that the change is just a temporary fad…

Overcoming all these and many other types of resistance is KCI’s expertise. Giving teams access to scientific systems and models to deal with the “people” end of change, is already making a big difference in results: “This process is absolutely brilliant. It cuts through the confusion. It allowed us to pin-point exactly what we need to invest in…we are very impressed by how seamless and deliberate the solution was.” -President, high-tech industry

Increasing engagement and reducing turnover are big words. Many change solutions set up big programs, thinking the systemic approach will set the platform for the needed results. Surveys, employee appreciation week, employee-of-the-month and other such platforms are great tools, but we find that if you want to see a real change in results, you must look at the dynamics of the individuals who make up the the whole.

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