Betsy Kendall: Corporate prisoners and the retention balancing act

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According to recent CIPD research, job turnover has slowed significantly over the past 15 years. This means that, in general, people are choosing to stay in their current roles rather than make voluntary exits (i.e. resignations and retirement). Economic conditions are likely to have been a major reason for the particularly significant fall in turnover since 2008, with people sitting tight, particularly if they have tenure over two years and the rights that go along with that.

On the surface it might appear to be nothing but good news for an organisation that much-valued members of staff are choosing to stay. However, for this to be a wholly positive trend, people need to be staying put for the right reasons. Companies risk their workforces containing ‘corporate prisoners’ who are trapped in their jobs, feeling dissatisfied or disengaged but too afraid of the uncertain economic conditions to risk moving. This may well be linked to the drop in job satisfaction and engagement we have seen over the last 12 months amongst the employees in many organisations; this can only depress company productivity at a time when most companies need to be more productive and agile.

It seems clear that there has been a rise in corporate prisoners since the credit crunch. However, the downward trend in job turnover predates the recession, so this is not the complete answer. Other factors are potentially more positive – improved pension rights for instance. But even these aspects may result in people feeling they would be financially disadvantaged if they moved on, despite no longer being engaged or motivated by their work.

So, when an increasing number of people feel they are treading water in their career, how can managers help them to remain motivated and engaged? Generally the answer is not in addressing ‘hygiene factors’ such as pay, but focusing on intrinsic motivators.

Enter the great manager. Too often we put leadership on a pedestal and think of management as its rather boring cousin. Leaders stand on hilltops, eyes fixed on a bright horizon, while managers are dutifully toiling their way up the hill with the troops, eyes fixed just a few feet ahead. However, when it comes to motivating and engaging people in the workforce, a great manager will likely do the job far better than a great leader. Leadership is about painting an attractive vision and inspiring people to buy into it and work towards it. At heart, it is a one-to-many activity that focuses on what we can have in common – our belief in a desired future.

Management is the powerful counterpoint to this. Fundamentally, it is a one-to-one activity, with the manager crafting the job to the individual where possible, so that their unique strengths, personal circumstances and motivators are accounted for and leveraged. There is art to this that we all too often overlook. A great manager relates to each person they manage differently – the opposite of ‘one size fits all’. They will know a good deal about what makes their people tick, what their strengths and motivators are. They are probably not too hard on them for not being perfect, and either overlook allowable shortcomings or design the person’s work so that these don’t trip them up.

Not all managers are as great at doing this as they would like, or as their organisations demand them to be. They need help identifying the unique strengths of their people and learning how to flex their style to meet each person’s needs – a level of personality awareness that can have a hugely positive impact on both individual and collective performance. Fortunately, there are plenty of psychometric tools – such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – that that can give managers a leg-up in appreciating how different their employees are from each other, taking advantage of these differences and knowing how to modify their behaviour when they want and need. Whenever there are people doing great managerial work, it is likely that staff will be helped to find new challenges within their jobs that will keep them truly motivated and engaged – no matter how long they stay in the organisation.

Betsy Kendall is COO and Head of Professional Services at OPP, one of Europe’s largest providers of business psychology solutions

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