· Features

Keeping your talents by setting them free, part one


Retaining highly mobile knowledge workers is difficult. Our study finds that one major reason why knowledge workers leave their employers is because they feel their true talent is not sufficiently recognised. Instead, they give importance to the opinion of trusted outsiders – independent professionals outside of their organisation – who may inspire them to leave. This has major implications for how knowledge workers need to be treated by organisations. To best retain them, it takes leaders to shift from managing to coaching top talent; from evaluating them internally to using external valuation, and from treating them as part of the firm to seeing them as part of a global professional community. 

Connecting your top talent with external experts and the larger professional community can improve loyalty and give them the validation and growth opportunities they need, find Kamila Moulaï and Stephan Manning.

What’s new

Knowledge workers are essential for the success and expansion of many businesses (Lin, Huang and Huang, 2020). More recently, thanks to advanced technologies and a globalising job market, knowledge workers have become increasingly mobile. 

As a result, highly qualified knowledge workers are not only hard to recruit, but also hard to retain, as they are very likely to leave employers voluntarily for better job opportunities (Suutari et al, 2018). Studies show that voluntary turnover rates continue to rise, and this is not likely to change with the growing millennial generation. 

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According to a recent Deloitte study, 26% of the millennials surveyed are ready to quit if they are unhappy with their employer.

What’s more, knowledge workers increasingly not only switch employers but also change industries and move across countries for new jobs – a trend we call super-turnover.

Conventional approaches to retaining employees often do not apply to these highly mobile knowledge workers. 

One typical misconception is that knowledge workers will stay when they are sufficiently rewarded financially.

Another misconception is that all it takes to keep top talent is to give them exciting projects and lucrative promotion opportunities. The reality is that employers often fail to understand what mobile knowledge workers really care about. 


Key findings

Our latest study reveals that one primary reason why knowledge workers consider leaving is their sense that their true talent is not sufficiently valued by employers. 

The notion that turnover is related to validation is not new (Chênevert et al, 2021; Walk et al, 2019).

But we find that the decision of knowledge workers to leave has to do with a perceived gap between what employers think of them and how their talent is recognised by so-called trusted outsiders. 

Trusted outsiders are external professionals whose opinions are valued and trusted by knowledge workers because they are experts in the field.

They are neither connected to the employer nor headhunting for others, so they have no vested interest. We find that knowledge workers, based on often random conversations, receive from trusted outsiders the validation they were often missing from their employers. 

We know from previous studies that conversations and informal meetings with people like former classmates can have a doorbell effect on employees. These are moments in which an employee starts re-evaluating their entire career and future opportunities, which can lead them to quit. 

What we found is that this effect is particularly strong when such conversations happen with trusted experts in the field, often with foreign experience. 

But why is external feedback so important to knowledge workers? It’s because knowledge workers look beyond the boundaries of their own employer. 

Think of academics: while they work at particular universities, their recognition and sense of identity come from attending international conferences and collaborating with researchers worldwide. 

Knowledge workers’ home is the global professional community they are part of. This is true for academics, but also for developers, consultants, designers and many other professionals. 


Check back tomorrow for part two of this feature exploring how to turn this research into reality.


Kamila Moulaï is a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow at Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in the Netherlands and Stephan Manning is professor of strategy and innovation at Sussex University Business School in the UK.


The full article of the above first appeared in the May/June 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.