Leverage passion or pay? How to stem the talent exodus

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“I’m giving them my two weeks’ notice,” John told me. “I’ve been in a job that has been sapping me of joy for the last five years. I’m not doing it anymore.”

John is among the millions of Americans making the decision to leave a current job without a new one lined up. In April alone, 4 million workers resigned from their roles, many in search of better pay and working conditions. There has been a zeitgeist shift in our relationship with work, and employers are struggling to keep up.

Not all of the exodus is due to a newly booming job market offering more opportunities. Much of the labor flight was spawned by employees having lived through a global pandemic in which we were all brought face-to-face with our own mortality. For some workers, this evoked questions about all aspects of their lives and the qualities they were searching for in their daily experience.

These questions included:

  • Am I in a job that pays sufficiently?
  • Is there an outlet for my passions at work?
  • Is the work culture nurturing or one that challenges my mental well- being?
  • Are my needs for autonomy and work-life balance respected?
  • Do I have enough time to pursue my external interests and hobbies?
  • Do I have an extended network of support around me to call upon in times of need?

As these questions are examined, they offer insight to leaders about the environment they might create to retain top talent and attract new employees who will stay. Pay will not be a sufficient lever for recruitment or retention because workers are demanding to be seen for the whole of who they are. You can’t “free-lunch perk” your way out of this talent exodus because it’s driven by fundamental needs for meaning, belonging and purpose.

The largest generation in the workforce, the millennials, are willing to accept nothing less than a work and life experience that aligns with a more balanced, purpose-filled existence.

So, what are some approaches leaders can use to address these burgeoning needs in the workforce? Begin at a human level.

Understand behavior as well as process

Managers have long been taught to pursue objectives and align workers to achieve results. Employee development and personal growth goals have received attention, but consistent focus has largely taken a back seat to delivering profits.

In today’s talent economy, successful managers will be those who take time to understand the deeper drivers of individual behavior, expressed as the purpose and passions of their people, so they can apply that knowledge to helping employees be successful. The more aligned an individual’s work role is with their passions, the more likely they are to be successful and retained.

Appreciate the economics of fulfillment

Behavioral economists tell us that we all have a baseline level of pay that we will agree to work for, below which we will feel undercompensated compared to the market. This is true for every employee in your organization. But the approach can’t be to pay just to that level and believe it’s sufficient to retain great talent. The other element to consider is how much fulfillment the employee is receiving from the work they’re doing.

Fulfillment is the hidden form of compensation that smart leaders are leveraging. To prevent a talent exodus and become an employer of choice, understand the ratio of financial reward versus fulfillment reward needed by each person in your organization. Working that ratio is your competitive advantage in this generation’s war for talent.

Embrace the hybrid

Studies have shown that employees are increasingly hesitant about returning to full-time in-person work settings. Whether from concerns about health or a desire to be in closer control of life balance, many employees would prefer to continue remote work arrangements. That makes managing more challenging and reinforces the need for leaders to pay much closer attention to employee needs for well-being.

At the same time, mastering management in a hybrid work world can allow your team to produce great results — and thrive while doing so. Dogmatic attempts to have your team adopt pre-pandemic work arrangements will likely result in the opposite.

Never sacrifice culture

Organizations that thrive through this “Great Resignation” will be headed by leaders who understand the power and importance of culture to the success of the business. Employees are more acutely aware than ever of the disconnect when leaders espouse a culture of inclusion, balance, respect and growth, while behaving in ways that are counter to it.

Of special importance is managing the challenges your best employees encounter, especially the ones you can control. For example, if an individual on your team consistently misses deadlines or shifts his or her work off to colleagues and you tolerate the behavior, you’re demonstrating disrespect for other members of the team. Culture and leadership behavior must align.

We’re in an historic period where employee self-actualization has become a major driver in our economy. If you embrace the desire of individuals to lead whole lives while still contributing to the organization, you will be the leader employees want to follow.

This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, July 2021.

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