In his book ‘Drive’, Daniel Pink discusses the key drivers of motivation in the workplace. In many ways, the three drivers he identifies also represent the reasons employees stay longer in their roles:

  • Autonomy: Our desire to be self directed and have ownership over our work.
  • Mastery: The urge to develop our skills and feel increasingly more competent.
  • Purpose: The desire to do something that has meaning and is important.
How do you prevent talent from feeling they have run out of space to grow on your team?

We want to keep our best people for as long as possible; to allow them to grow and deliver more impact for our teams. When we feel someone is unhappy and considering leaving the team (despite, from our perspective as a leader, continued strong performance), we often kick into reactive mode and do what we can to encourage them to stay. This is particularly true when the team member has a specialized skill set that we are in short supply of.

We tell the team member we value them, that their skills are important and that we want to keep them on the team. In an effort to increase their interest in their role, we give them a longer leash; the flexibility to work on different projects of their choice and to get involved in new areas across the business. Essentially, we give them more autonomy.

This strategy doesn’t work very well, at least not beyond the short term. By only dealing with one element of workplace motivation, autonomy, we don’t address the problem holistically. By ignoring mastery, we don’t create meaningful ways team members can learn and develop, which are important to prevent them from becoming frustrated by a lack of growth. This is particularly true in the case of high performers. By ignoring purpose, by not clarifying and communicating the purpose behind the work, their work can feel meaningless and perfunctory. In fact, by only focussing on autonomy, we often do more damage to the purpose of the work than if we did nothing at all; by telling a frustrated team member ‘we value you so much on the team, we don’t mind what you work on’ we are communicating ambivalence as to how they focus their efforts, and in some cases, orphaning them from the organization’s strategy.

A simple conversation with each team member can tackle these issues before they become really problematic. Take your time to explore the answers to each of the questions below and listen carefully for any signs of gaps that need to be addressed.

‘Do you feel you have the freedom you need to do your work effectively?’

‘Do you feel you have the projects, time and support you need to continue to grow within your role?’

‘Do you feel your work contributes to the work of the team in a meaningful way?’

Investing the time in discussing these topics now will save you pain in the future; looking out for themes across responses will also help you plan the bigger changes needed to deal with larger retention challenges. Don’t wait until it’s too late to keep your best talent; think holistic and be proactive.

-- Colm