How to really motivate employees to stay with your business

26 July 2022

I was recently asked how businesses can go about “keeping employees” in today’s climate. A straightforward question on the surface, but it got me thinking…

“Keeping employees” doesn’t feel a sufficient goal anymore post pandemic – for all parties concerned (employees, employers, and customers). The bar is too low; one keeps “fish” after all, not people.

Should we not be aiming higher?  Is it not better for employers to aspire to nurture their employees to thrive in their workplace? To be engaged in meaningful and purposeful endeavour for their customers?

“Keeping employees” smacks of gilded cages over inspiring workplaces; management control over employee empowerment; customer delivery over customer satisfaction. Too idealistic? Well, it is clear that at least some of the underpin to the recent “Great Resignation” is that employees are re-evaluating what they want from work. And the conclusion for many is that they are not getting what they need from their employer.

Therefore, the question facing many executive teams and boards is what do employees really want?  And how is the relationship between employers and employees changing? Indeed, I would argue that these questions go below the surface of tactical talent management solutions and goes to the heart of an employer’s purpose, culture, values, and mission.

Research has been done to provide deeper insights into what employers believe is important to their employees as compared to what employees believe is important. The results reflect a mixed bag; some elements between employers and employees are aligned; important others are not. For example, “work-life balance” is a mutually appreciated priority. Many companies earned significant good will through the support they gave their people during the pandemic (and now must be careful not to lose this as people return).

However, disconnects do persist. For example, companies don’t sufficiently recognise just how important it is for people to feel valued and that they belong. This is real inclusion and involves being recognised, respected, and appreciated as an individual and for one’s contribution. It begins with how you are made to feel by your team and manager and is shaped by the actions of leaders and culture. This contrasts with what companies perceive as important to people, including factors such as compensation and promotions. Whilst these are important to a degree it is not as critical as companies believe. This suggests a gap in the psychological contract between companies and their people, particularly in understanding what should be mutually appreciated, important and valued.

So, what should executive teams and boards pay attention to?

In short, it is about employers taking the time to really listen and understand their employees’ higher needs. This involves reinvigorating an organisation’s sense of purpose, mission, and community so that it is compelling, and that people want to be part of.

It’s about leaders nurturing and role modelling an organisational culture that is inclusive, safe, developmental, and inspiring. It’s about creating the conditions for employees that makes them feel they truly belong. It’s about living values that are honourable, sincere, and adhered to. A healthy organisational culture is the psychological glue that binds people to together in positive and collaborative ways.

So rather than focusing on tactical talent attraction and retention strategies as the starting point, perhaps companies should consider how they create a culture that motivates, gives purpose, and delivers to the customer. Once this is established the task of increasingly differentiating and personalising attraction and retention strategies can serve then to further reinforce and deepen the relationship between employers and their people.

It’s not about “keeping” people; it’s about making them feel they belong.

Andy Lyon is a partner within our talent consulting team working across culture change, leadership development, coaching and HR strategy.

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