Retention: Beyond Goodies and Gimmicks, Part 2

In the first part of this article series, we discussed why retention strategies based on “goodies and gimmicks” are misguided and how such approaches are not the key to increasing morale or becoming an employer of choice. Becoming an organization that attracts and retains the best employees instead requires strategies based on essential human needs that, when fulfilled, lead to satisfied, committed, and productive workers. The six most critical human needs that affect employee commitment and performance are:

  1. Having pride in one’s work and employer
  2. Doing work that has meaning
  3. Understanding the goal and one’s role in meeting it
  4. Being a player and not just a hired hand
  5. Having the chance to experience efficacy
  6. Being heard

In Parts 2 and 3 of this article series, we will explore each of these important human needs and how to use them, along with accompanying questions, to help your organization become a “talent magnet.” Do You Give Your Employees a Reason To Be Proud? Organizations with a committed, inspired workforce expect excellence from themselves and their employees. Organizations with low morale and high turnover, on the other hand, often suffer from a pride problem. In these companies, employees frequently see poor quality products and services tolerated, ineffective managers not held accountable, operational decisions made without due diligence, and the following of flavor-of-the-month fads, among other pride destroyers. With respect to employee pride, remember this: “Everything matters.” Every management, marketing, customer service, operations, and public relations action will affect whether employees feel pride in their work and their employer. Here are a few questions to ask your managers and employee advisory council:

  • Do our products and/or services warrant pride?
  • Do our operational decisions and processes warrant pride?
  • Do we let poor quality go unchallenged?

Does Your Employees’ Work Have Meaning? Perhaps the best secret weapon of talent magnet organizations is creating a meaningful work experience in which employees ó regardless of their job ó feel like they are doing something important. This is an important “difference that makes a difference,” because the desire for meaning and purpose is one of the most fundamental and powerful human drives. How do you create a work experience that has deep meaning? First, make sure your organization’s mission and vision don’t just stay on a wall plaque, but instead come to life everyday in the actions of your managers. Second, continually communicate to employees how your mission and vision translate into their daily work. They need to know how they make it happen. Third, connect your workers with your customers through testimonials, videos, focus groups, or face-to-face encounters. Make sure they can to experience how their behind-the-scenes work makes a difference to your end user. Questions to ask your managers and employee advisory council:

  • Do we give our employees a reason to care?
  • Do our mission and vision inspire passion?
  • Do our employees understand how they contribute to our mission and vision?
  • Do our employees hear and see how their work affects our customers?

Do Employees Understand the Game They’re Playing? Years ago, while doing a project in Australia, my host excitedly offered to treat me to an evening of World Cup cricket. I remember staring blankly at the TV screen, not able to muster any enthusiasm about a bunch of guys whacking at a ball with a funny-looking bat. Of course, if I understood more about the goal of the game, the rules, the strategy, and the skills that made someone great, I might have shared his enthusiasm. My lack of engagement and flat-out boredom reminded me of the experience many employees have of their workplace, because they don’t understand the game they’re playing. They don’t understand the company’s mission and vision in practical terms. They don’t know the business goals, the role they play in achieving these goals, how they provide the greatest value, how the company itself works, how their market works, how well the company is doing, or how well they themselves are “playing the game.” How can we expect employees to be to be excited about a “game” they don’t understand? Questions to ask your managers and employee advisory council:

Article Continues Below
  • Do our employees understand the Big Picture and their role in making it happen?
  • Do our employees understand the workings of our organization and how each piece affects the others?
  • Do our employees understand the fundamentals of business in general, and ours in particular?
  • Does each employee understand how he or she provides value and the ways he or she can provide the most value?
  • Do we communicate regularly what is going on in the organization and marketplace?
  • Do we give our employees numerical data that allows them to assess their performance and progress?

Are Your Employees Players and Not Just Hired Hands? People are a lot like cats. If we’re not stimulated, we can be like a housecat ó about as lively as a pillow. But when our curiosity is aroused, we become like an outdoor cat ó a veritable learning and exploration machine. Scientists believe that the drive to learn is hard-wired into us. Some maintain that this need is even more fundamental than the desire to procreate, since it is needed the moment a baby enters the world. When organizations thwart this innate drive by not allowing employees to learn, they create a bored, disengaged workforce. Giving employees the chance to learn on the job, to solve problems and to offer solutions can transform a lethargic, disengaged workforce into a vibrant, passionate team. Few things engage workers more than being able to roll up their sleeves and solve real-life problems. Yet, so often they only get to be worker bees, little drones mindlessly carrying out strategies created from above. Making employees players and not just hired hands not only taps into the human need to learn, it also taps into the powerful drive for meaning discussed earlier. Employees want to matter; they want what they do to matter. According to Gallup’s research, having the chance to be a player ó to give one’s input and have it respected ó is one of the most powerful drivers of employee performance and retention. The more you can work with employees to design their work so they don’t just feel valuable, but they get to be valuable, the more engaged and committed they will be. Questions to ask your managers and employee advisory council:

  • Do we actively involve our employees in problem solving and process improvement?
  • Do we give them the information and support to make good decisions?
  • Do employees actually have the authority to execute their decisions?
  • Do we constantly ask for input, both for issues related to an employee’s particular process or department and for overall organizational issues?
  • Do we give employees a chance to be like small business owners with regard to their work?

In the third and final segment of this article series, we will explore the final two critical human needs in our list of needs that affect employee commitment and performance: having the chance to experience efficacy and being heard. We will end off with a list of “next steps” to help guide you in the application of this information. In the meantime, let the above questions serve as a challenge to you and your organization’s managers to really think about how your workplace is structured ó and whether it is truly addressing the fundamental needs of your very human employees.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 60 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at