‘Bad Leadership Breeds Turnover’

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Consultant John Morgan on why it’s more important than ever to improve leadership culture—and how to do it.

As employers face a potential post-pandemic “turnover tsunami,” they need to act more urgently to prepare their workforces for the future, says John Morgan, president of LHH, a New York City-based firm that provides career transition, coaching and leadership development solutions. A first step is ensuring that company leaders themselves have the skills that are needed.

Morgan spoke with StrategicCHRO360 about the importance of emotional intelligence, the need to communicate regularly with employees and why it doesn’t really matter whether people work from home or the office.

The world is experiencing a “turnover tsunami” right now with millions of people quitting their jobs. How can employers mitigate this trend and limit the negative impacts on their business operations?

The numbers don’t lie. There are more people voluntarily leaving their jobs now than ever before. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in April that four million Americans quit their jobs for a variety of reasons, the highest one-month number ever recorded. This creates huge challenges for employers depending on where they are in their overall business plan.

Organizations undergoing a transformation may see this trend as an opportunity to reimagine their workforces and bring in a new wave of talent. However, it’s important to remember even these kinds of organizations will need leading-edge human capital policies and programs to ensure their top talent remains. And most of those initiatives will really have to focus on leadership.

We have known for some time now that bad leadership breeds turnover. Organizations that tolerate weak, ineffective or toxic leadership tend to have much higher turnover rates to begin with. They also tend to have much higher levels of stress, burnout and mental health problems. So, improving the overall leadership culture and promoting the ideals of emotional intelligence will not only help retain top talent, but also ensure employees are engaged and productive.

Employers also need to help their leaders adopt a “coaching mindset.” Not only will this help leaders embrace EQ skills like compassion and empathy, but it will equip them to have genuine career conversations with their people. Showing interest in where employees want to go and what they want to do with their careers, and then giving them opportunities to grow and develop, is the best way of retaining the best and brightest talent.

You mentioned stress and burnout. How can leaders support and build higher levels of employee well-being?

While we were all stuck at home, the lines between our personal and professional lives evaporated. Suddenly, our children were being home-schooled, our partners were fighting with us for space in the home office and all the while, our workdays were growing longer and longer. Add in the anxiety of waiting for Covid-19 test results, actually getting sick from Covid-19, coping with the isolation of lockdowns or dealing with the death of family and friends, and you can easily see why the pandemic has been one of the greatest threats to mental health in recent memory. This is something employers must address.

Workplace wellness programs are going to be an important part of the equation. Gym membership, meditation or walk breaks, ensuing that people take their vacation time and access to mental health counseling should be the core of any employer’s wellness programming. But more importantly, we need to start linking “employee wellness” with “career wellness.”

If people don’t feel good about their jobs, if they are worried about the future or suffering with a toxic boss, then it will be hard for them to feel good in their personal lives. People need to feel they have some job security, that it is rewarding and that the environment at work is psychologically safe.

Reskilling and upskilling opportunities will be key if we want to address this challenge. We need to invest in people, help them learn how to do new things or apply the skills they already have in new ways. This not only keeps people engaged, it also helps alleviate stress and burnout. Overall, employers need to ensure psychological safety throughout the entire work experience.

Everyone is at a different stage in their personal and professional lives, and so the kind of support employers need to provide is different for each person. Employers need to create environments where people can say “I’m not okay and I need help,” and then have an array of solutions available to address each situation.

Aside from turnover and employee well-being, what other challenges will organizations face as they prepare for a post-pandemic future of work?

The pandemic has been so tough on all of us. But one of the positive things to come out of this global challenge is that we all know we have the capacity to change. Even people who previously would have self-identified as resistant to change now realize they can do things differently.

For some, this was brought on by pure economic necessity. People have left jobs in industries that were crippled by the pandemic, and moved into new jobs in completely new industries. They did this because they had to earn a living. But the accomplishment is no less significant—people saw the need to change, and they embraced it.

However, we will waste this momentum if we go back to the way we managed human capital before the pandemic hit. LHH recently conducted a global survey that showed less than half of employers had any plans in place for reskilling, upskilling or internal mobility. This is remarkable given the fact that there is still such an incredible shortage of skilled workers.

This is where the turnover problem, the pandemic and the future of work come together and create a huge challenge for employers. The good news is the solution to all these problems is really the same: investments in people to help them grow and develop so they can meet the future talent needs of their employers. Done properly, it all fits nicely into a virtuous circle of talent development: treat people better, let them grow and they will make sure the organization is well prepared for future business challenges.

Many companies are preparing “return-to-work” plans. How can employers make sure they are taking the right approach in a post-pandemic world?

It’s pretty clear that many employers are still weighing their options when it comes to return-to-work plans. Some companies are committed to getting their employees back into a traditional office setting as quickly as possible when health rules allow it. Others found remote work so productive and popular, they are going to abandon their office leases altogether. A third group is moving towards a hybrid structure, where people split their time between home and office.

From a human capital perspective, it doesn’t really matter which strategy employers adopt as long as they are communicating effectively with their people. With all of the stress and pressures of being forced to work from home and learn new ways of doing their jobs, people don’t want to be cut out of the discussion about what happens when the pandemic eases.

At the very least, employers need to ask their people what working arrangement might work best for them. Making big decisions without getting employee input could trigger a mini “turnover tsunami” at their own organization. Remember, even those employees who have not quit may be looking around at what other companies are doing, weighing the benefits of chasing a better job with working conditions that more closely align with personal preferences.

In short, employers need to trust their people. Employers should ask them what they want before making any big plans and then employers can move forward knowing that their people are behind their decisions, whatever those might be.

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