Right now, we are in something of a workplace revolution, moving along a path upon which we had already started, but were catapulted further along when many employees worked from home during the pandemic. Businesses are seeking solutions to stop employees from jumping ship, including discussions about pizza parties, gift cards, or company merchandise. The hope is that such perks will make employees feel valued and remain on board. Some are even talking about retention bonuses. Regardless, if such incentives are used as a plug instead of part of a multifaceted approach to retention, employees will continue to abandon ship.
So the question is, what do we do to save the ship? To find the answer, I sat down with Tony Brazelton, a people management consultant who specializes in communication and leadership skills for frontline leaders. In the first ten minutes of our discussion, he shared a report from Gallup that offers the key to employee satisfaction, low turnover rates, profitability, and cost reduction: a positive relationship between the employee and their immediate supervisor. Unfortunately, even with this clear correlation, most managers are not selected for their relationship/communication skills, but rather because they are a top performer and a management role is just the logical next step on their career path.
Yet, if we want to face this revolution head-on and work towards long-term solutions, we need to rethink our promotion approach and focus more on these relationships. According to Tony, the root of a healthy manager/employee relationship is to give autonomy, while still being invested. He proceeded to break this down into three primary components: trust, time and vulnerability.
According to Tony, “Trust is a verb, not an outcome. Give it before they earn it. Trust your employees to act like adults and don’t treat them like children.” Simply put, don’t micromanage. Many businesses noted how effective employees were while they worked at home during the pandemic; however, now those same businesses face the temptation of returning to old, familiar practices. But what if we continued to offer our trust to employees? What would it look like if this trust existed both ways in the manager/employee relationship, and employees weren’t afraid to come to you with the truth? When they made a mistake that could ruin the whole project or stop production, what if you were the first to know? What if there was enough trust there for you to try to solve the problem together immediately? One way to cultivate this type of relationship is to point out their autonomy in their job. Every job has some level of independence. From there, encourage them to optimize, experiment, and innovate. Then trust them to do so effectively because they are adults. Give them space to try, fail, learn, and try again.
It can be confusing to encourage investing time in employees immediately after saying don’t micromanage them. Nevertheless, status reports and performance plans were meant to be part of a tool kit for the healthy management of employees, not the whole skillset. So what kind of other employee check-ins are there? Tony recommends at least weekly check-ins, not for a status report, but to discuss concerns, plans, or whatever else might be on the employee’s mind. Even the most self-sufficient, independent employee should not be left ignored, but should be brought in and have their role in the company acknowledged and appreciated.
And in those moments when something seems off with an employee, instead of immediately grabbing a performance plan, ask questions. Too often, HR departments encourage managers to keep their distance to keep things impartial, but that simply doesn’t work if we are striving for healthy relationships and employee retention. Tony put it so succinctly when he said, “We can’t just check our emotional brain or humanity at the door.” As managers, we need to take the time to invest in our employees and let them know that our support is more than words.
Being vulnerable in the workplace might still be counterintuitive for many of us, especially if we are in a position of authority. It may feel like a weakness, but it actually takes a great deal of strength. This includes telling the truth to your employees even when it’s hard. For example, instead of gaslighting them when they didn’t get a raise, openly acknowledge, “Your performance was perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing, but because of a systemic process that values high-profile projects, the raises went to the people working on the other project.” The employee will still be unhappy with the result, but by telling that uncomfortable truth, they have a better respect for you and can better assess their project choices in the company.
It’s entirely fair for managers to take a minute to recognize that this relationship-centric management style is a big ask. As we said initially, most managers were not promoted for their relationship skills. Additionally, some businesses even have policies to keep the appropriate “impartial” distance and not build relationships. Yet this is a change we can navigate together because the time has come to push back against old, familiar procedures and instead invest in managers who are ready to invest in employees in return. That is the key to employee retention.