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How to Use 'Stay Conversations' to Keep Employees Engaged

A man and a woman sitting at a desk in an office.

Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with the Association for Talent Development (ATD) to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

Surveys continue to show that the number one reason employees leave is not the work and, in most cases, not even the paycheck. Instead, it is the relationship employees have with their supervisors that makes the difference. That's an interesting data point when you think about the fact that the cost of building relationships can be next to nothing compared with the cost of the turnover when talented employees leave.

The Work Institute's 2018 Retention Report shows that U.S. organizations spent $600 billion on turnover last year. That figure is expected to be nearly $680 billion by 2020. The financial cost is just one part of the problem and perhaps not the most damaging. When talent walks, they take with them their knowledge, expertise, experience and ideas—all things that are essential to keeping companies competitive and successful. It's impossible to accurately estimate that cost.

So how do employers avoid costly turnover and ensure the development of those critical relationships between employees and managers? They can begin with a stay conversation.

The Basics

Stay conversations are discussions between a leader and a valued direct report with the sole purpose of learning more about the employee—about what's most important to her in the workplace and her interests and aspirations. The takeaways from these interactions include useful information that may not have surfaced any other way. The manager learns directly from the employee what will engage and ultimately retain her. Most important is that the employee tends to feel more appreciated and heard through this demonstration of genuine care and concern.

Stay conversations don't have to be lengthy. They often take no more than 15 minutes. And they are not one-and-done events. Stay conversations are most effective when repeated often, with follow-up and next steps along the way to build an ongoing dialogue with a purpose and meaning.

These invaluable conversations can take place anywhere and anytime. The key is to make sure the place and time are convenient and comfortable for your employees. After all, it is about them. Stay conversations can take place over a cup of coffee, on a walk around the workplace campus, over lunch—anywhere that you can make the connection. When choosing a time and a place, remember that privacy is important for your employee to feel free to be open and honest.

Key Components

Who, when and where. Have a plan for whom you will be talking to, when it will take place and where you will make it happen. Schedule it in advance to avoid confusion and allow the conversation to focus on the employee entirely from the start.

The context. Think through and communicate the meeting purpose. This preparation accomplishes two important things. First, it eliminates any fears that the employee may have about why the meeting is taking place. There's nothing like a "Can we talk?" request from one's manager to set the internal alarms blaring. Second, communicating the purpose sends the message that you value the employee and allows him time to think about what he wants to share during the conversation.

Conversation starter. Open the conversation with a reminder of the purpose and an acknowledgment that it will be a two-way exchange. Customize the opening to the employee. For example, "Chris, you are a key member of the team. You consistently meet deadlines and you're a true team player. During last week's project work, those two things were what got us through. How do you feel about the way the project work rolled out?" By including specifics, you're demonstrating that you appreciate the employee's contributions and you're reinforcing behaviors that you want to continue. Use open-ended questions to learn more and deepen the dialogue.

Questions to ask. Seek to understand what is most important to the employee. Your goal is to understand how she can get more of what she needs and wants from her work. Curiosity is an essential tool for digging deeper. Curiosity surfaces great ideas on how to best motivate and engage your employees.

Don't make assumptions about what is most important to your employee—ask her. Only she knows the answers to these kinds of questions. And you are guaranteed success when you ask the question directly. Want a true win-win here? Ask your employee to help you figure out how she can achieve more satisfaction on the job.

Ideas for action. You have probably heard the axiom that a goal without a plan is just a dream. Well, the same holds true for making stay conversations work for your organization. The conversation without actionable outcomes is just talk.

Chat with your employees about next steps to achieving the goal of greater job satisfaction. Acting on what you discuss is a sure way—perhaps the more important way—to underscore that you value what they bring to the team. Ideas for action are not just a one-way street where you take on all the to-dos. This is a great opportunity for your employees to take some ownership of their job satisfaction levels. Ideas such as doing research around different ways to complete daily tasks or identifying alternative methods for developing skills are action steps that employees can take on.

Follow-up plans. Close the meeting with a plan for following up. Schedule the next conversation right then. Put a date on the calendar for the next step, and make it happen. With a healthy amount of time built into the process and a plan for action, you are guaranteed to move the needle on getting your employees more of what they need to achieve long-term satisfaction in the workplace.

Question Types

Depending on your conversation's goal, there are various types of questions that you should ask:

Growth and development. The fact that all workers want a promotion may be a myth. Research suggests that people want to grow, learn and be challenged. Ask questions that will help them grow:

  • What about your work is most exciting? Least interesting?
  • What do you want to learn? What do you want to teach others?
  • What are some of your short- and long-term professional goals?
Loyalty and trust. Your leadership style has much to do with your employees' level of commitment to the work that they do. Establish loyalty with your employees during conversations:
  • How do you like to be recognized for contributions and accomplishments?
  • Where do you feel you need more (or less) feedback from me?
  • What would make you feel more successful at work?

Work environment. Company and team culture have a lot to do with the degree of fit between your employees and the organization. Try to gather your employees' thoughts on the matter:

  • What has been your biggest surprise about our culture?
  • What do you know now that would have been helpful to know earlier?
  • What do you think this organization values?

What Else?

Why don't managers ask these questions more often? You may fear what your employees will say—that they may ask for things you can't deliver. In reality, studies suggest that oftentimes what employees ask for is far easier to provide than imagined. And if they request something that can't happen right now, honesty is the best approach. Explain why you can't address the request and ask, "What else?" Experience has proven that the follow-up "What else?" will result in things both you and the employee can explore and work on together.

What about outcomes? Stay conversations go a long way in not only eliminating exit interviews but also in helping engagement and talent-focused leaders build environments where people love to work. Who knows? Your own legacy may be as the leader for whom talented people most want to work.

Most important, though, is that you have created a foundation for establishing open, trusting relationships with your employees—relationships that can make the difference between retaining the talent you need and watching them walk out the door.

Don't wait for that next employee engagement survey cycle; ask early and ask often. Start holding these conversations today.

Lynn Cowart is chief operations officer for Talent Dimensions in Alpharetta, Ga., and co-author of Up Is Not the Only Way: Rethinking Career Mobility. Cile Johnson is chief business officer for Talent Dimensions.

This article is excerpted from with permission from ATD. ©2019 ATD. All rights reserved.


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