Retention: Beyond Goodies and Gimmicks, Part 3

In the first two parts of this article series, we discussed how understanding and satisfying core human needs in the workplace is a far more effective strategy than bribing employees with goodies and gimmicks. In the second part of this series, we explored four critical human needs that influence employee retention:

  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

In this third and final article, we will examine two more human needs that affect your organization’s ability to create a loyal and passionate workforce. These are:

  1. Having the chance to experience efficacy
  2. Being heard

At the end of this article, you will find a “Next Steps” section with eight things you can do to translate this information into the beginning of a successful, comprehensive retention strategy. But for now, let’s examine how your organization satisfies these two other critical human needs. Do Employees Get to Feel the “Thrill of Victory” in Their Work? We are hard-wired to desire the feeling of mastery, the “thrill of victory” that comes from doing something effectively. Whether it comes in the form of solving a problem, completing a task, or conquering a challenge, mastery provides intrinsic pleasure. The behavior of babies and small children demonstrates the fundamental and self-reinforcing nature of this drive. Nobody has to reward a baby to encourage it to try relentlessly to stand up or tie its shoes. “The thrill of victory” is reward enough. The same is true for people at work. Nothing leads to feeling good and feeling good about oneself like being good at something worthwhile. Conversely, few things create a demoralized workforce more quickly than preventing employees from doing their jobs well. Improving morale and retention requires examining your organization for the typical ways organizations hamstring efficacy, such as inadequate training, out-dated technology, and job expectations shrouded in mystery. Besides affecting retention, these obstacles strongly impact productivity. A 1995 study by Yankelovich Partners for the firm of William M. Mercer revealed that the average worker surveyed could be 26% more productive if it weren’t for the following obstacles, listed in order of importance: lack of direction, support, training, and proper equipment. A few questions to ask your managers and employee advisory council:

  • Do we prepare our employees to do their jobs well through adequate orientation and training?
  • Do we have any jobs where failure and inadequacy are the primary experiences employees have?
  • Do we provide the technology and logistical support for employees to do their jobs well?
  • Do our managers know how to set clear expectations, give clear feedback, and perform productive performance reviews?

Do Employees Feel Heard? Few things enrage employees more than when senior management doesn’t bother to ask for their feedback or how they are doing. Although giving employee feedback is Management 101, many senior managers plow ahead with new initiatives or maintain unproductive practices without bothering to ask how they are playing “among the troops.” I’ve often been struck by the power of the need to be heard when conducting focus groups with organizations having serious morale and turnover problems. On several occasions one or more employees will sigh at the end of the focus group and say “Whew, I feel so much better just being able to say what’s on my mind. Now I can get back to work.” When I hear this, I can’t help but think of the morale and productivity increases the organization would enjoy if they implemented formal and informal processes that engaged their employees in an ongoing conversation about how they are doing. Questions to ask your managers and employee advisory council:

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  • Do our employees believe we listen to them?
  • Do our employees believe we care about what they have to say?
  • Do we actively solicit feedback from employees, both formally and informally?
  • Do our managers ask their subordinates for input on how to improve as a manager?
  • Do we respond to employee feedback promptly, letting them know what is being -done ó or not ó with their feedback?
  • Do we make it safe for employees to express dissatisfaction and disagreement, or do we label them “not a team player”?

Getting the Biggest Bang For Your Retention Buck If you’re serious about holding onto your best people, you cannot ignore the results from Gallup’s research, which involved over two million employees. Curt Coffman and Marcus Buckingham, the primary researchers in the project, make clear the critical role managers play in an organization’s ability to retain talented people: “If you have a turnover problem look first to your managers,” they assert. “People leave managers, not companies.” How a boss treats an employee is the strongest determinant of their work experience. Just as in customer service, where the truism goes, “To the customer, the employee serving them is the company,” to an employee’s manager is their employer. Having supervisors who haven’t been properly trained or aren’t held accountable for how they treat their people is a recipe for low morale and high turnover. Quint Studor, CEO of Baptist Hospital in Pensacola, Florida, who has led the hospital from below average to a national exemplar of patient and employee satisfaction, notes that a vital part of his organization’s turnaround was investing in an area most organizations give short shrift: management development. At Baptist, managers at all levels are taken offsite for two days, every 90 days. After just two years, overall employee satisfaction had risen 30% while turnover for nurses ó something no hospital can afford in today’s labor market ó had decreased by 40%. Thus, perhaps the most important action your organization can take is to provide your managers with the training and support to do their jobs well and to hold them accountable. Not only will your employees be happier, but so will your managers, because they’ll be more effective. Taking the Next Step Here are some next steps to put the ideas we’ve discussed in this article series into action:

  1. Create an employee advisory council and use the questions I posed here and in Part 2 as a catalyst for exploring how to create a more intrinsically satisfying work experience.
  2. Use these questions to engage your management team in the same conversation.
  3. Actively involve your workers in generating and executing solutions.
  4. Stay connected with the voice of your workers through surveys, focus groups, town hall meetings, Q&A coffees, informal check-ins by managers, and your employee advisory group.
  5. Impress upon your management team that retention is everyone’s job, not just HR’s.
  6. Invest in management development. Help your managers increase their Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQ) by learning about human nature and how it affects employee performance. Help them develop the skills to bring out the best in their supervisees.
  7. Support your managers’ development by instituting a coaching and mentoring program for them.
  8. Hold managers accountable by using appropriate goals and metrics in their performance evaluations.

Retaining employees ó especially your best ones ó requires more than goodies and gimmicks. It requires understanding which human needs drive satisfaction and high performance and then using this knowledge to create an intrinsically motivating work experience. If you do this right, you are on your way to becoming an organization that truly is retention-worthy.

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