How To Tell If Your Leader Is Ruining Employee Retention

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What drives retention? Leaders: the flesh and blood humans in charge. From managers to CEOs, the boss has a huge impact on retention. For all the bells and whistles we create to drive engagement and ensure retention, it won’t mean a thing if an organization’s badly led.

The national unemployment rate was 4.5% in March. Key fields are desperate for hires, while others (like health care) will soon explode beyond capacity. Retaining talent is an overriding concern for today’s employers in the midst of a talent crunch. We’re trying to fix it with money (a 2017 survey by Xerox found that 37% of employers are willing to raise pay to keep high performers), smarts (recruiting is grappling with the nomenclaturepotential, heart, determination) and tech (cognitive computing is learning to screen for loyalty).

But first, a basic fact: We are a social species. We evolved from small tribal bands whose very survival depended on a good leader — one mistake by the caveman in charge and we’d be ripped apart by a saber-toothed tiger. That instinct remains in our DNA. So if your organization is bleeding talent, ask your employees how they really feel about the person in charge. If any of these 10 traits crop up in their answers, you’ve got a leadership problem on your hands.

1. Not Credible: If the common reaction to a leader’s directive is incredulity or a face-palm, forget about alignment. You can’t get employees to sign on with hearts and minds to the organizational mission if the boss is clearly not mission-ready, or appears oblivious to problems that simply must be solved. There’s plenty of debate about whether or not a CEO should be from the field, but if not, they should still have the wisdom to turn to experts for guidance.

2. Bro-ness: The old boy’s network is dead. Sexism is bad business, from any standpoint: demographics, an incredibly tight job market and the clap-back ability of social media. This is a candidate-driven market, in which job seekers are confident they can hold out for the situation they want. Employers with leaders perceived as sexist will lose out on attracting more than half top talent out there, and probably can’t afford to.

3. Conservatism: Not politically, creatively. The future is AI, VR and cars that fly and drive themselves. Our economy, transformed by digital and global changes, now thrives in a state of constant transformation and runs on disruption. Disruption is how we grow. If a leader can’t see tomorrow’s forest for today’s trees, the most ambitious stars will leave. Employees, particularly younger ones, perceive stagnation as death. And if you’re going to try to align employee engagement with organizational mission, don’t make the mission to not grow.

4. Recklessness: Granted, we want our leaders to reach for the stars. But there’s the appeal of someone driven by ambition, and then there’s the terror struck by someone clearly engaged in reckless at-all-costs behavior that risks everything and everyone. The recent, troubling profile of Travis Kalanick shows how his at-all-costs, damn-the-regulations leaderships style brought his company to the edge. If employees perceive a CEO is driven enough to destroy his own firm, they’re going to jump ship before they’re forced to drown.

5. Alienating The Top Ranks: Look around you: are offices empty? Uber’s lost eight high-level people in two months. A leader who alienates the inner circle will trigger an exodus down the ranks as well, just less publicly. As senior execs leave, there’s a palpable crisis of confidence. Kalanick not only created a toxic work culture no one could escape, he made fatal management decisions senior executives found impossible to fix. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, they left.

6. Inflexible: Deloitte’s 2017 Millennials survey found a strong connection between a culture of flexibility and employee retention. In organizations with a highly flexible working environment, 35% of employees imagined leaving within two years (35%), a mere two points above the 33% planning to stay over five years. But for companies that don’t offer flexibility, there was an 18 point gap (45% versus 27%). The takeaway: a flexible company culture is shaped by its leaders. How many employees represent 18% of your company?

7. Tone-Deaf: There’s a different between tough and tone-deaf. What happened to Dr. David Dao recently at the hands of United Airlines was bad enough — and revealed a badly flawed organizational culture in which employees have few options for dealing with sticky situations. But when the CEO made the decision to congratulate his employees for their actions, he demonstrated remarkable cluelessness that’s going to cost the company as well as its employees. The health of an airline depends on its customers. Stay tuned.

8. Bad Ideas: When a leader won’t let go of a really bad idea — stack rankings, a blood-testing startup reliant on fake results, stealing technology — collateral damage spreads fast. You don’t just lose talent, you lose the prospect of their coming back. Seventy-six percent of HR pros see value in hiring back boomerang employees, according to a Worktrends survey, and nearly half of millennials consider returning to former employers. Boomerang employees are an asset in today’s workforce with a distinct advantage, including familiarity with company culture and mission, and the added benefit of what they learned while away.

Add 9: a boss who spins everything instead of talking honestly, and whose lack of transparency practically guarantees internal conflicts. And 10: a passive-aggressive boss who’s over-controlling, withholding, and pits employees against each other. Such as work environment gives retain a whole different meaning: employees trying to retain their sanity just until they find another job — which they will. From demographics to globalism to big data, we know what’s transformed how we work. Now it’s time to focus on who’s leading us.

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