Questions good leaders ask

As businesses began reopening or expanding operations when COVID closures eased, many leaders worried about whether or not customers would come back. As it turns out, we should have been thinking about how to encourage our employees to stick around.

More than 20 million Americans left their jobs in the second half of 2021. There are certainly many drivers behind the highest-ever number of Americans resigning, with experts pointing to everything from uncertainty about job security, to burnout, to people reflecting on career goals. 

However, recent research from MIT Sloan Management Review pointed out that organizations with reputations for strong workplace cultures had experienced lower attrition rates than other companies in their industries. In other words, a major culprit behind the Great Resignation is toxic workplace culture.   

This means company leaders can create environments that will encourage more people to stay. I believe companies can boost retention and help build positive workplace cultures if leaders can answer two important questions:

Do employees know their manager cares about them as a person, even before considering their workplace performance?

Do employees know the next thing they need to do in order to advance their career and improve the business? 

Why leaders should ensure employees can answer these questions

These questions may seem simple, but in my experience, very few leaders know whether employees could answer them. The truth is, many of them are operating under outdated paradigms.

This is dangerous for retention because we have seen a major shift in employee attitudes toward work, driven in part by a new generation of workers. The workplace is no longer just a place to earn a paycheck, but an important element of a beneficial work-life balance.

These two questions reframe the essential relationship between workers, managers, and the business, and brings the experiences of all into a sharper focus. The principles supporting these questions help underscore the impact that good managers can have on employee experience are just as important. 

When employees can clearly answer these questions, it means their managers are engaged in more than just business outcomes. Employees want to work for companies that care about them as people and help them improve themselves.

How leaders can support employees to find the answers 

Although the responsibility for providing the answers to these two questions falls primarily on company leaders, employees share the burden of seeking them out. Companies can address this need on both sides of the employer-employee equation by creating workplace cultures that care for employees as people and help them find fulfillment in their work. 

We sometimes see leaders so focused on bottom-line tasks that they simply don’t have the time or inclination to worry about their people. People generally quit managers, not companies. When employees know that the company values them as more than a set of data points on a spreadsheet, they are much more likely to embrace a future with that company. 

Understanding each employee’s next career step is an extension of building a department that demonstrates genuine concern for everyone’s welfare. Managers understand it is often their job to correct employees when they aren’t doing well. But what about employees who are excelling? Both are susceptible to burnout and need fulfillment in their careers. Focusing on one point of progression helps all employees prioritize their efforts and accelerates success.

When people don’t believe their manager cares, or when they get bored or stagnant in their jobs, they start looking for greener pastures. The simple truth is that taking care of people and helping them grow always improves retention.

Building around the well-being of employees is one of the most important ways to avoid a toxic workplace culture. Attrition is inevitable in every company, but people will have fewer reasons to leave when they are appreciated and recognize their own personal and professional fulfillment.  

As employees are encouraged to learn their next steps in career growth and assured their leaders have their welfare at heart, they will respond with extraordinary results. There is no better recruiting tool for finding exceptional people than happy, passionate employees sharing their experiences with friends and family.

Can your employees answer these two questions? It’s a starting place that will give you a sense of the direction your organization is headed and a pulse on the cultural heartbeat you’ve cultivated among your people.

Ryan Sanders is the cofounder and chief product officer of BambooHR.

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