as a business psychologist, my mission is to help leaders and their teams to become more effective—both professionally and personally. One of the questions I get asked the most is: “What’s the secret to retaining your staff?”
To answer the question and give you an example of how leaders successfully retain their staff, let me take you back a half-dozen years to the last time I was an employee, before I co-founded Talentspace, the consultancy that I now help to run.
I worked for a firm of business psychologists which had an unofficial policy of allowing the psychologists to work from home whenever necessary. Business psychologists spend a fair amount of time writing reports on the organisations that we’ve evaluated or the individuals that we’ve been asked to coach. Working from home was a way of allowing the
psychologists to write reports unimpeded by the normal interruptions of a busy office.
I remember on one occasion when my boss, Simon, phoned me during the middle of a work day. He wanted to ask me a question about a piece of client work I was supposed to have been working on at home. The thing was, I wasn’t at home. So I admitted that I was in a local supermarket, picking up some groceries.
But Simon’s response wasn’t to chastise me for being at the supermarket rather than my desk. He simply said that I should carry on with my shopping and call him back when I was able to. So I carried on at the supermarket, gathering everything on my shopping list before heading home. Only then did I call him back.
So why am I repeating this story? The point is that Simon, my boss, didn’t care that I had been running a personal errand during my work hours. He knew that I would make up the hours either early in the morning or perhaps late at night. He had faith that I would always get the client work done if there was ever a pressing deadline. He trusted me to use my judgement in the same way that he trusted everyone who worked for him. He knew that if he simply gave his psychologists the freedom to manage their own time, his team would enjoy the job more and be very loyal to the firm.
I worked for that company for quite a few years. It was the longest job I ever held. The only reason I eventually quit was because I received a once-in-a-lifetime offer that I couldn’t refuse: to present a television show about business psychology for the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, the renowned television channel.
Going back to the original question then, the answer to retaining staff is not about pay and benefits. If money is the only incentive keeping employees with you, then a competing employer only has to offer a few more dollars to lure your employees to work elsewhere.
No, the secret to retaining people is to treat people like “rats.” More specifically, RAT is an acronym, with “R” for responsibility, “A” for autonomy, and “T” for trust. Leaders of today help nurture tomorrow's leaders.
In combination, these three components help to create a working environment that most people find challenging, enjoyable, and incredibly difficult to leave. I came up with the formula based not only on my own experience of bosses both good and bad, but also based on interviews I did with hundreds of successful managers and entrepreneurs all over the world for a book that I wrote called The Extra One Per Cent: How Small Changes Make Exceptional People (Macmillan)
Firstly, employees enjoy having responsibility. Employees like to feel that they are contributing to something important and doing tasks that are meaningful and not simply the tasks you don't want to do yourself. Giving people only trivial decisions and unimportant projects guarantees that employees feel stifled at work.
Next, employees enjoy having autonomy. They enjoy being allowed to exercise their brain power to decide on the best ways to go about their job. By all means tell them what you want them to do and when it needs to be done. But let your employees decide for themselves how they should go about delivering those results. Autonomy allows employees to feel challenged rather than constrained.
Finally, consider the importancae of trust. Most employees want to do a good job and you should trust them to get on with it. Of course you should check that they understand the tasks they have been given and are happy with them. The moment they feel that you don't trust them, that you are checking up on them and suspicious of how they are spending their time is the moment they lose their trust in you. Suddenly that other job offer that pays just a few dollars more may be all the more tempting.
The RAT formula doesn’t mean that mistakes won’t happen. If anything, providing employees with respon-sibility, autonomy and trust means that mistakes may be more likely than if you micro-manage your team. But the mistakes should hopefully be small and the upside so much greater. Employees who have responsibility, autonomy, and trust may devise new ways in which the team can work together more effectively. They may discover unforeseen ways to serve customers that deliver better profits for the firm too.
As a final thought, consider the Silicon Valley-based firm Google. The firm gives its employees one whole day every week to work on interesting personal projects of their own choice. Now that’s giving them responsibility, autonomy and trust. Is it a coincidence that Google is one of the fastest-growing and most profitable firms of the century? I don’t think so.
Copyright © 2013 Singapore Institute of Management