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Viewpoint: 8 Things Managers Do That Make Employees Quit

A woman is sitting at a desk with a laptop in front of her.

Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business Review to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

Algorithms are becoming increasingly relevant in the workplace. From sifting through resumes to deciding who gets a raise, many of these new systems are proving to be highly valuable. But perhaps their most impressive, and relevant, capability is predicting which employees will quit. IBM is in the process of patenting an algorithm that can supposedly predict flight risk with 95% accuracy. Given that we are in a candidate-driven market, this is a significant innovation. There are now more job openings in the U.S. than there are unemployed Americans.

Losing an employee can have a drastic effect on team morale, and result in a domino effect that leads to poor performance and productivity. Not to mention, it is expensive, and not just because of lost talent. It takes an average of 24 days to fill a job, costing employers up to $4,000 per hire—maybe more, depending on your industry. The good news is that only about a quarter of employees that leave do so within their first year. This means you have plenty of time to assess flight risks and address them.

But not every company has a fancy algorithm to help them out. Even predictive models that can identify the behavioral patterns that reveal who will quit don't excel at explaining why they do. This is likely because the reasons people quit are deep-rooted and complex. During my fifteen years working in data science, I have run countless predictive models on employee retention, student retention and customer churn across industry verticals, including healthcare, energy and higher education. Through my work, I've identified eight common leadership mistakes that help explain this why. Understanding them, and how they impact your team, will help you identify those who are a flight risk and make changes that may convince them to stay.

Mistake 1:  Setting Inconsistent Goals or Expectations

Consider this scenario: A sales representative at a rental car company has to choose between serving her next client or correctly logging her previous client's information into the system. Her manager has made it clear that "slow service is poor service," but she knows that improperly entering customer information could get her fired. Choosing between these two tasks causes her to experience high levels of stress on a daily basis, and as a consequence, she hates her job.

This situation is not uncommon. But when employees are forced to choose between tasks in order to meet competing expectations, the result is a team of stressed out people without clear priorities.

How can you avoid this situation? Take a note from Disney. Each worker in the Magic Kingdom is given a list of priorities with items ordered from the most to the least important. Safety comes first, followed by courtesy, show (or performance) next, and finally, efficiency. When team members find themselves in sticky situations, no one is confused about how to manage them.

You can create this same kind of stability on your team by being consistent and clear with your expectations. Write them down—even if it is only for yourself—to see if any contradict or overlap. Then make necessary changes and share. In doing so, you will empower your team and ease their stress by giving them a greater sense of control over their tasks. Most importantly, you will be making work a more pleasant place to be.

Mistake 2: Having Too Many Process Constraints

Process constraints often occur when a lack of information, resources, or another factor, stops an employee from doing their job. I've seen this take place, for example, when a worker is forced to wait for several other tasks to be completed before they can move forward with a project. Such conditions will naturally inhibit performance—which are evaluated by managers—even if it is not the employee's fault. In turn, the employee begins to feel powerless, and displays low morale, poor work quality, and frustration.

How can you avoid this situation? Consider context when evaluating performance. Look at the criteria, and consider how much control your employee has over their outcomes, as well as how much control you have over any constraints that may be affecting their output. Talk openly to them about their performance and ask questions that will help them communicate any concerns on their end.

If you find that process constraints are in fact affecting their performance, use your influence to try and improve the situation. Sometimes this might require having difficult conversations with other departments or leaders. But these conversations will ultimately benefit your employee, as well as your bottom line.

Mistake 3: Wasting Your Resources

Pretend you are a marketing manager. You have until Friday to roll out a new campaign. It's Tuesday, which should theoretically leave you with plenty of time. But there's a problem. You have six meetings for a total of four and a half hours today. The following day, you have seven meetings, which eat up six hours. On Thursday, you have to attend a team training session for five hours. So when are you supposed to work?

This is what we call resource waste. In the case above, and many others, the resource going to waste is time. Employees who are constantly crunched for time tend to get burned out faster, which impacts the quality of their deliverables. If you don't give your team the resources they need to succeed, you are setting them up to fail. It's not uncommon for employees in this situation to leave and seek out a company with a more sustainable work culture.

How can you avoid this situation? Sometimes busy weeks that result in wasted resources are unavoidable. But creating a list that ranks the importance and impact of your employees' tasks can help. If your employee knows their campaign plan is due Friday, for example, help them itemize the tasks they need to complete by that deadline, and consider if doing so is realistic given their current workload. Before assigning them additional tasks or inviting them to meeting after meeting, ask, "Is this new task a priority? Does this employee really need to be in the room?" If the answer is "no," give them space to do their most important work.

Mistake 4: Putting People in the Wrong Roles

If you ever hear an employee say, "I went to college for this?" you can bet they are not happy with where they are or what they are doing. This is another example of waste, but I call it "knowledge and skills waste." Unused abilities can leave employees feeling undervalued and faceless. An algorithm can easily take a job posting, outline the skills required for it, then take a resume and infer the knowledge and abilities of a job candidate. But if there is a disconnect by the time that candidate becomes an employee, you've got a risk factor out of the gate.

How can you avoid this situation? It's best to be transparent about the roles you are hiring for and what they require during the interview process. But if you're already in too deep, there are a few ways you can handle it. Start by checking the job description your employee was hired into, and compare it against their current task load. Are there gaps and, if so, how wide are they? Take notes. Then discuss them with your team member to see which gaps are falling short of their goals and which are the most important.

You may not be able to change the role entirely, and it may take time, but together you can come up with a plan to help them take on more meaningful responsibilities and drop tasks that add the least value to your team.

Mistake 5: Assigning Boring or Overly Easy Tasks

Think about the last time you had to go to a work event that you really didn't want to attend. Maybe you had to converse with too many people about uninteresting topics or sit through several hour-long seminars in a single day. How did you feel after the fact?

You were likely exhausted, very exhausted—even though all you had to do was talk a little and listen.

Why? Because you were suppressing your emotions. Suppressing, rather than acknowledging, any feeling can take a toll on your energy level, even if that feeling is boredom. If you have an employee with a light workload who constantly takes an excessively long time to finish their tasks, don't assume they are lazy. Less work is not always easier work. When employees don't have enough to do, they can lose motivation and experience negative emotions. If they suppress those emotions, they can become physically and emotionally exhausted. The net result is a lack of work satisfaction and engagement, forcing employees to finally ask whether this job is the right fit for them.

How can you avoid this situation? Get creative. If your team member has a history of stable performance, they'll likely be open to extending their capabilities and taking on more challenging work during their downtime. Before assigning tasks, ask your employee about their interests and passions. Based on their answers, give them work that will enhance their knowledge and skills, or help them grow in the right direction. A learning agenda with target goals, and a roadmap outlining how they will reach them, will also help you keep track of and check in on their progress.

Mistake 6: Failing to Create a Psychologically Safe Culture

Hostile environments are easy to spot. If you notice your team members being overly agreeable or quiet in meetings, that's a bad sign. When employees fear their thoughts or ideas will be met with repercussions, they tend to behave this way, which means you are likely operating in a fear culture. Employees who do not feel psychologically safe are more prone to error and less likely to take risks, participate in healthy conflict or grow in their roles. Contrarily, team members who feel psychologically safe are productive, innovative and enjoy a sense of belonging.

How can you avoid this situation? To create a psychologically safe work environment, show your team that you are open to new ideas. In meetings, ask questions before posing answers and reward those who speak up by thanking them for their input or following up with additional queries. Consider all viewpoints when brainstorming solutions to difficult problems and make sure your team knows that there is no such thing as a "wrong answer." If an idea has a lot of potential, you might even ask your employee to run with it and present what they come up with at the next meeting. The more you can incorporate your team's feedback into projects and strategies, the more empowered, valued and safe they will feel working for you.

In addition, show some humility. When you own up to your faults or admit that you don't have all the answers, you show your team members that it's okay to "fail." Take on the perspective that failure is an opportunity to grow, and your team will start to do the same.

Mistake 7: Creating a Work Environment That Is Too Safe

Studies show that a moderate level of pressure and friction at work is healthy for employee growth. But the key is moderation. When employees feel overly pressured to perform well in their roles, they can lose sight of what's important, and in acts of desperation, use unethical means to excel. On the other hand, if your employees have no pressure at all, they may start to wonder if their work even matters. People who find no meaning or purpose in their work perform below their potential, are less productive and are often less loyal than those who work in purpose-driven organizations.

How can you avoid this situation? One way to create a healthy amount of friction is to provide your team with regular feedback—both positive and negative. When delivered thoughtfully and without judgment, negative feedback can give people something meaningful to work towards. You should also be sure to remind your employees of what they are doing well, and how their role contributes to the goals of the larger organization (no matter how big or small their contribution is). In turn, they will begin to see how they fit into the big picture, and may even start to feel a greater sense of purpose.

Mistake 8: Leading with Bias

Consumer studies show how much customers value being treated fairly by the companies they give their money to, and the same can be said for workers on the inside, giving up their time. Leaders who are fair—without bias—are leaders who employees can trust, and a trusting manager-employee relationship "defines the best workplaces," improves performance and is good for revenue. A lack of trust, however, can result in low morale and a team with little or no guidance. Think of it this way: if your employees don't trust you to lead them down the right path, how will they come together and align their efforts to meet a shared goal? Put yourself in their shoes. Would you want to work at a place without clear direction?

How can you avoid this situation? Practicing self-awareness is a good start. Managers who can recognize their implicit biases and make adjustments to overcome them are more likely to lead in a fair and just manner. Before you make an important decision consider what is driving you. Are you basing your choices off of evidence or preference? Have you considered other perspectives? Are there any gaps in your knowledge you need to fill first? Asking for regular feedback from your team and acting on it will build a culture of fairness and open communication.

It's true there is no way you can control every aspect of your team's work experience. If someone wants to leave bad enough, sometimes they just will. That said, focusing on your own behaviors and what you can control will do wonders to improve the performance and cohesiveness of your team. The better you manage, the more productive, innovative, satisfied, and most importantly, loyal your team will be.

Jon Christiansen, SHRM-SCP, is the co-Founder of Insights and Outcomes (Ins & Outs), a data-driven strategy and predictive analytics company in Clemson, S.C. He is also a principal at Sparks Research, a full service marketing research and business intelligence company. Christiansen is the co-host of The Modern Polymath, a podcast where he and the Ins & Outs team discuss everyday topics in relation to organizational development, marketing intelligence, data science, consumer psychology, economics and cybersecurity.

This article is reprinted from Harvard Business Review with permission. ©2019. All rights reserved.


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