· Features

Ask what would keep people, not why they leave

We spend so much time analysing why people leave us, yet often fail to understand what would keep them

In a world where we are no longer fishing in a talent pool, but rather an overcrowded pond, why do we wait until someone has been flirted with, dated and then engaged by another equally ‘talent hungry’ employer to ask them to stay? Most of the time they have already emotionally detached themselves, corporately deplaqued, and moved on. Occasionally we save them; we are inventive, find something interesting, and it works out. But ordinarily, in my experience, it doesn’t.

When we are surrounded by rich data and people analytics, why do we spend so much time analysing the reasons people leave us and yet often fail to successfully understand what would keep them? Because we don’t ask. We don’t have time. We are too busy answering emails and requests for data, wedded to our computers and in endless meetings.

The way we treat our employees should be the way we treat our loved ones, in terms of the informality of conversations. We should be asking questions like ‘how are you feeling?’, ‘are you ok?’, ‘are you happy?’, and ‘we’re alright, aren’t we?’.

There are many stats that prove that by the time a couple has engaged in marriage guidance counselling one or both have already made the decision to move on. It is similar with employees. You leave it too late and any conversation is ultimately a waste of time (that could be spent in yet another meeting).

So why do we avoid asking those caring questions, apart from a lack of time? It seems that a large factor is the fear of not being able to provide a solution. The fear of being met with that most terrifying of responses: ‘actually, I feel I deserve a salary increase’. At which point we clam up. But often we can collaborate with the individual to work something out.

So how do we return to the good old-fashioned art of conversation? This is where neuroscience can be helpful. We have underestimated just how much our brains are wired to connect with each other, which goes right back to our early years and the need for survival.

In the workplace emphasis continues to be put on the role of the manager in high-performing teams. And when we feel socially excluded it reduces our ability to think. Add this to the brain’s need for information and certainty, and our human desire to influence decision-making, and maybe we can see why a ‘stay interview’, or a good old-fashioned ‘catch up’ is key. These ensure that you know how your employees are feeling and what they need to stay for longer (assuming you want them to of course).

Quarterly check-ins beyond the performance management reinvention that we are all going through might help. They should ask: ‘How are you?’ ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘What would make you stay for the next x months/this year?’ ‘What could you do to get more enjoyment from your role?’ And ‘what can I do to help you be more successful?’

This might feel like management 101, and it certainly won’t get me any awards for strategy development. But it is surprising how few managers have asked these simple questions in the past 12 months, let alone the last 12 days.

By exploring what an employee needs to stay engaged and committed we share decision-making, and after reflection can help provide clarity on the next steps. The employee can take back a level of the control, playing into the hands of what the brain craves.

Even if we can’t fulfil the needs of our very best employees at least both parties know where they stand. They can then plan for resignation, and HR can review the organisational structure and calmly find the right person for the same role or a newly-designed role.

So maybe a simple ‘stay interview’ could lead us to a much more strategic outcome. And although it can be nerve-wracking, maybe good old-fashioned conversation isn’t such a bad idea after all...

Julia Ingall is group HR and talent director, UK and EMEA at Ogilvy & Mather