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Viewpoint: How to Motivate Your Team When People Keep Quitting

A group of people sitting around a table in an office.

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

Maintaining good morale and engagement is part and parcel of strong leadership. When you have turnover on your team, it is especially imperative that you take measures to keep your team positive and motivated. Research has shown that, due to social contagion, when a coworker quits, it can spread to affect other employees' quitting behavior. That is, when one person leaves your team, it increases the likelihood that others will do the same.

Given this, here are six strategies to keep your team motivated when someone quits:

1. Create Terra Firma

The human brain was not built for the amount of uncertainty we are facing at work and in our lives, write social psychologist Heidi Grant and the Chief Learning Officer for EY Americas Tal Goldhamer. With ever-changing shifts in the business landscape, customer and employee expectations, work arrangements and an unclear end to the pandemic, it can feel like the ground is continually shifting underneath our feet. This uncertainty produces a threat state in the brain, which can result in decreased motivation, cooperation, self-control and overall well-being. Turnover on your team only adds to this threat state.

To counter this, create certainty for your team wherever you can. If you have no plans to leave the company, make that clear. You might say, "Just so you know, I don't have any plans to leave. I will be here for you."

Or, if your team is looking for clarity on the company's strategic direction and you have questions about it as well, instead of saying something like "I'm sure we'll find out soon," provide process certainty by informing your team of your plan to seek the answer and a specific date by when you'll get back to them.

This will help create more solid ground and a sense of stability for your team members.

2. Solicit Feedback to Assess Individual and Collective Capacity

Check in with your team members regularly to understand what work they currently have on their plates. This will give you a sense of both how you might rebalance some of the work among team members and what the team's collective capacity is at any given time. If your team is close to (or over) capacity and something needs to give, invite the team to help problem solve and re-prioritize. People are motivated when they have a say in creating team goals and in what they can and can't take on — and, they may have some great ideas that you might not think of on your own.

Your team members' ongoing feedback may also provide opportunities to help them to free up capacity by better understanding what they might delegate to others, or stop doing all together, so they can free up time for higher-value work. Their feedback will also increase your visibility into their workload, which may require you to adjust your expectations about what can realistically be accomplished. It will also help you build a stronger case to your boss for additional resources for your team, given the team's goals.

3. Enable Autonomy

Once you and your team have aligned on collective goals, allow your team members to decide how, when and where they complete their work. In a recent study of 5,000 knowledge workers, 59% indicated that flexibility is more important to them than salary or other benefits. Along with certainty, autonomy is one of the five key drivers of threat and reward in the brain. When people feel in control and that they have a choice, they are more motivated and experience higher well-being. Conversely, a lack of autonomy can elicit a strong negative reaction that can diminish the ability to focus and collaborate.

In addition to enabling flexible work arrangements, consider which decisions you can leave to your team members' discretion. While some decisions may benefit from your guidance, others likely do not. For example, could you allow team members to choose some of the projects they work on or with whom they work? Where you can provide your team members autonomy or choice, do so.

4. Give Your Team Permission to Push Back

Let your team members know it's OK to say "no" and question deadlines. Invite them to challenge your assumptions and tell you how much work something that "seems simple" will actually take to accomplish.

You will need to give explicit permission for them to do so and repeat this message over time. It can be easy for team leaders to lose sight of the power dynamic that can make it intimidating for some people to speak up, let alone push back. When people do speak up or push back, be sure to listen, acknowledge what you've heard and engage in a two-way conversation (or negotiation) about what can and can't be done, deadlines and how you can help remove the relevant obstacles for your team.

Failing to grant this permission and create this psychological safety for your team will only cause them to keep quiet, allowing morale to decline and burnout to increase, which will ultimately lead to more team members leaving. In granting this permission, you can also openly recognize your common humanity with your team members — that we all have limitations and burnout serves no one — m aking it easier for others to let you know if they are feeling too stretched or overwhelmed.

5. Shield Your Team

While good leaders typically protect their teams from unrealistic or low priority requests, it's more essential than ever when there are fewer people to bear the same workload. Engaging in ruthless prioritization, including quick triage of unnecessary or low-value work and pushing back against low-priority demands on behalf of your team, is paramount.

Also, give your team clear decision-making criteria as to what requests should be accommodated and empower them to say no to non-essential requests when needed. Be proactive in supporting your team members in fending off demands that your team can't realistically meet. It can be hard for members of your team to say "no," especially to more senior or external stakeholders, and your involvement will show your team members that you have their back. Take the lead, if necessary, in delivering a well-reasoned "no" or a "not now" to the stakeholder making the request.

6. Create Connection

Tackling big challenges together and knowing others have your back can build morale. Aim to foster a "we're in it together" ethos where team members pitch in to help each other — which you can both role model and reward in others. Ultimately, this can create an esprit de corps or camaraderie that creates lasting friendships amongst team members that extend beyond the workplace. According to Gallup, work friendships increase both productivity and engagement.

In addition, be sure to take the time to connect as a team on a more personal level, whether it's doing a personal check in at the beginning of staff meetings, celebrating a team member's birthday, hosting a team happy hour or planning a fun team-building activity. Creating spaces where team members can connect on a personal level is one lever to prevent feelings of isolation that can contribute to burnout. Jennifer Moss shares in her book, The Burnout Epidemic, that "personal connection isn't just good for engagement and happiness at work; it's what makes us human."

When teammates leave, it's an opportunity to recalibrate and solidify your foundation as a team to help maintain, or even improve, team members' individual and collective morale and performance. Taking the above actions can help mitigate further attrition and keep everyone motivated and engaged.

Rebecca Zucker is an executive coach and a founding Partner at Next Step Partners in San Francisco, a boutique leadership development firm. Dina Smith is an executive coach and the owner of Cognitas in San Francisco, a boutique leadership development firm.

This article is reprinted from Harvard Business Review with permission. ©2022. All rights reserved.


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