How do you improve staff retention?

How do you improve staff retention? Maybe you’ve got a headcount churn crisis and need a solution. Perhaps the industry you’re in is competitive and you keep losing your best people? Maybe you’re worried about becoming a revolving door? How do you solve this common headache?

What are the typical problems behind staff retention issues?


Oh how I have experienced this… This was the bane of my life and without doubt the most frustrating period of my management career. I had this both in non-management and when in management at different levels.

The root problem behind micromanagement is caused from the top of an organisation and it filters down. It starts with a short term “bottom line” mindset. In this situation every monthly or quarterly meeting is about the bottom line results. At one point, often a distant memory if micromanagement is an acute issue, you’ll recall the company focusing more of its attention on aspirations and vision. These meetings could and should be about the future, the goals, the dreams of what could be. This is what inspires someone.

Instead company leaders fail to remember that and get fixated with protecting profits. This leads to putting pressure on their immediate subordinates to do so. These subordinates, in order to protect their own positions and their own futures at the company, then focus their attention on this short-term objective. How do they do that? Put pressure on their subordinates to make sure this is done. And the cycle down the chain of command continues.

Meanwhile you are left with someone breathing over your shoulder every five minutes asking “why has this not been done yet”, “what are you doing with that” etc. The micromanagement is to avoid people making mistakes in order to protect profits. It will limit losses of course. But at what cost?

Those same people will end up hating their jobs. They’ll dread working for you. If you’re guilty of micromanagement, you’re probably trying to protect your own position because if you don’t you’ll either be out on your ear or not progress. So, the problem comes from the top.


Company culture is a major talking point these days. But it still amazes me how this is completely misunderstood by so many businesses.

Culture in itself is defined as “the way we do things around here”. It is not about benefits, ping pong tables, social events, dress down Fridays, baking cakes, duvet days or any of the other contemporary leadership innovations.

On a day to day basis what is it like for an employee to work in your business? I’m not talking about the job duties. I am talking about being part of the business. Have you asked your employees? Are they too afraid or worried to be honest with you?

I’ve experienced it as when leadership asks if people are happy everyone say’s yes because behind closed doors if anyone didn’t their careers would be in trouble. How is that creating a great culture? That is a culture of fear.

This is a common problem in businesses without leadership being willing to acknowledge or even being aware of it.

Creating a great culture is where people work in your business because they want to be part of it. People do things for three reasons; they have to, they need to or because they want to. If people are working in your business because they have to or they need to they won’t be there for long.

I’ve worked for bosses that I loved working for. Sure, they might have been hard on me at times, they may have made mistakes and they could have been plain unreasonable on occasion. But I wanted to work for them. I didn’t want to let them down. I knew that when it came down to it they wouldn’t give up on me. They gave a damn about me as a person. And cared about what it was we were doing. They were behind the cause and were willing to put their neck on the line to achieve it.

So, what did I do in response?

I worked my socks off for them! I cared because they cared and I grafted because they grafted. And when they suffered, I suffered too. But I wanted to be part of it.

Creating a culture where people want to be part of it like that allows you to weather storms. It allows loyalty when the tides are against you. It promotes a strong culture that you can build upon. That’s what culture is really about.

Not Delivering on Promises

I have covered the point in several of my posts about companies drumming up PR campaigns to attract talent to work for them. In itself this is simply just promotion. Nothing wrong in that. But there is a growing trend that goes too far sometimes and it’s not just from large companies either.

How many sponsored adverts do you see on LinkedIn, Facebook or Social media for example that promote a company using terms such as “Incredible”, “Amazing” and alike? If these sponsored adverts are to be believed on every occasion nobody would want to leave these places.

Yet on most occasions, or at the very least a sizeable number, these companies ranging from SME’s to corporations are like chalk and cheese in comparison to how these adverts describe working for them.

Why are companies advertising like this then?

To attract talent you need to sell, market and promote. If other companies are promoting themselves as incredible and amazing places to work and you’re not, your company won’t stand out. This will mean that the talent you want will join competitors. It’s a vicious cycle. You have to fabricate and inflate the truth in order to compete, but in doing so you are over-promising on the reality.

Is there a better way of promoting your company?

The dilemma is that if your company is a mediocre organisation, promoting it as more than that will falsify the truth. Yes, you may attract talent and that is the idea. The problem is that once that talent realises your promotions were exaggerations they will quickly move on.

The simplest solution is improving the company so that any promotions are not exaggerations. That doesn’t mean ping pong tables and free lunches either. Yes, they’re pleasant benefits. But is that really why someone would want to work somewhere?

People want to feel inspired. They want to be excited by coming to work. They want to feel part of something and they want to feel that their career is going somewhere. Some people on the other hand couldn’t give a damn about those things. But are the latter group of people who you want to attract?

What is inspirational about your company? Are they words and promises or real actions and commitments? What is it like to be part of your company? What’s exciting about what you are trying to do? How can you set a plan and a clear route for their future where they have things to aim for? That’s what the talent out there wants.

If you do not have those things, it’s down to the people at the top to fix it. If they get too comfortable the whole company is limited and again it reverts to the senior leadership team to solve the problem.


In work places manipulation can be a good thing or a bad thing. Sometimes a leader needs to use manipulation to the benefit of a team member for their own good. They’ve had a bad day and need motivation. One solution is Positive Reinforcement. But it’s not always used justifiably.

Manipulating someone to do something for a leader’s own benefit without regard for how it can impact the person being manipulated is plain wrong. Using your rank to influence someone to do something when it could be at their own detriment is unscrupulous. Yet this happens all the time.

It’s for short term gain, but again at what cost. Once that individual realises what is going on it erodes trust. If it happens again and again, it’ll lead to them leaving.

Yes, manipulation does have a place in business. But only when used in a manner where the individual will come to realise that it was for their own good, not visa versa.

Company Politics

It is said to move up the ladder in a company you need to “play the game”. This is code for keep the right people happy by swinging every situation that’d keep them contented in your favour whilst making sure you agree and say yes to everything your superiors say.

This also goes for ensuring that any potential competition to you has a few things go against them to discredit their attempts to progress up the ladder. If you’ve ever read the book “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli you’ll get the idea.

The interesting thing is that no company has this problem. If you ask most senior leaders if their company suffers from internal politics, they’ll flat out deny it and proudly exonerate their company from the perils of politics. They may even go as far as promoting that their company is politics free to attract potential talent. Yet, you don’t need to dig too deeply to work out that this is a common pest that gets more feral the higher up the ranks you examine.

Why is this such a common problem and why is it denied?

Nobody is going to admit to playing the politics game as it’d be career suicide. Plus, if you’re good at it you’ve probably risen so far up the ranks that it’d be catastrophic to even hint that you may have dabbled once or twice.

Not all senior figures are bad eggs, but for every dozen there is usually at least one or two. If ego’s are enormous at the summit, then it only breeds more bad eggs below. Anywhere you find an enormous ego in a senior leadership role, they’ll be an entourage of game players in tow. Some may call their entourage Yes Men and Yes Women.

Is it really that bleak if you want a career?

Fortunately, not. Good companies are out there. Great companies are out there. It’s just a mine field to find them. Even GlassDoor, Google Reviews and other similar employee recommendation platforms have been corrupted on occasion by companies attempting to create the illusion of a great place to work.

How do you find them then?

I tend to try to find successful companies that have a fair number of long term employees who aren’t all in management as a good starting point. Why have all of those people stayed for so long? If people have left them, as no company will have a 100% retention rate, why did they leave?

If the people who have been there a long time simply love working there and the people that have left regret leaving you’re probably on the right path.

Unbalanced Work

I’ve regularly in my career worked 70 hour weeks. Sometimes I wanted to, sometimes I felt I had to. I am, by my own admission, a workaholic. I love what I do so I don’t tend to be too bothered by spending extra hours doing it. However, you do need a balance.

You need family time. The need for social time. You need time to let your brain recuperate. Time to exercise. You need time to rest. It is unhealthy both physically and mentally to overwork yourself.

Some companies and leaders inadvertently see employees as commodities and resources. I use the word inadvertently as it’s an easy trap to fall into. You’re pressured by your boss to get results. To achieve this, you need to delegate the workflow out, but often aren’t given the resources and facilities to make this workable. This is because your bosses’ boss has had their budgets cut and efficiency targets raised. So, the proverbial sh** rolls downhill.

Therefore, you’re more under pressure to get better results than before. People around you start to leave because they don’t want to be overworked and as a result you get their workload stacked on you.

Some companies have a policy of a fixed hours limit and will budget for extra resources and personnel to be brought in to avoid this ultimately endemic scenario. But some don’t and overworking, overstretching and becoming over-reliant on any one individual is a recipe for disaster.

Creating Value

People want to feel that there is value in committing their time and efforts to the cause. People also want to feel that there is a cause there in the first place. This cause is something meaningful to aim for. A destination to head toward.

People will act in self-interest. Progression, career development, skills improvements etc are all things of appeal. But if there isn’t real substance behind this it will quickly become hollow.

People need to believe and buy in to what it is that the collective team or company are striving toward. They need to understand their part to play. They need to feel that their contribution is important in the bigger picture and that they are a valued asset in that pursuit.

Companies can fall into two traps here

The first is that leaders can talk the talk when it comes to goals, but there isn’t substance behind what these goals are about. It becomes clear that it’s more a tool to motivate than a cause to inspire. The cause isn’t really a cause at all. It’s simply a manipulation to drive productivity and won’t tie people in for the long term.

The talk may also sway from goal to goal and this will simply cause confusion. How many companies every quarter seem to have a different focus, which is seemingly unrelated to the last?

The second is that goals aren’t set at all or, if they are, not communicated to the company. What are the staff working for then? The end of month payslip only? How is that going to drive someone on?

Companies need to have clearly defined goals that are properly communicated to all staff. The goals themselves need to be long term based with incremental steps to identify progress along the journey. And most of all the goals need to be simple and easily understood.

Individuals need to be clearly informed of their part to play. They must be given the support and development to demonstrate that they are as individuals important and valued. The measure of this would be that anybody could walk into your company and ask any individual what the company goals are and what their individual part to play is and get a straight answer every time.

Organisational Support

Imagine that you have a job to do and you are expected to do it. But you haven’t been given the tools to accomplish the desired outcome. It would be annoying to say the least. Imagine that this keeps happening. How do you solve this issue if you were faced with this scenario?

The logic would be to address it with your line manager. But let’s say that they cannot fix it for whatever reason. But if the job is not done properly to the desired outcome it is you that is made accountable for it. How long would you continue working in that company?

This is a common issue in companies; people being held accountable for tasks where they are not being provided with the correct tools to achieve the desired outcome.


There are several causes, which can often act as a melee of compounding challenges.

It could be that one person at the top is making cost cuttings without fully understanding the implications to those below. Often cost cuttings will see short term gain without realising the long-term impact until many months later. How many companies perform cost cutting exercises and see that the following year people leave who fall into the more skilled or valued employees group of that business? Delayed impact.

Internal politics could see people poorly suited for certain skill areas being awarded positions of responsibility that they are unfit to warrant. This results in them making avoidable organisational errors and basic mistakes because they are incompetent in their job role. Yet how many companies have people in senior positions that any rational person on the shop floor could identify as a mismatch for their job function? Politically motivated appointments.

Division between upper management and the hands-on staff could see communication rifts opening. Maybe there are problems being identified, but not being communicated upward. Or senior leadership not listening to the feedback that they are being given.

Organisational support allows people to do their job functions correctly. It is about ensuring that people are supplied with the correct training, tools, resources, time and communication. Take any one of those criteria out of the equation and organisational issues begin to compound.

Much of the organisational support problems are easily avoidable, but are caused by short term decision making at the top. All decisions should be balanced out between long and short term impact ensuring that the long term is supported as the priority.


To improve staff retention it needs to begin at the very top of the leadership hierarchy. Sure, middle management can adapt and patch up problems, but are limited on powers if they are not supported from above.

Micro-management needs to be eradicated as it is caused by short term thinking and should be replaced by clearly defined long term goals. Any goals need to be communicated to the company fluently and need to be simple and easy to comprehend.

The people need to feel part of a culture where they are not manipulated but inspired. They need to feel valued and that their contribution will progress their career.

The promises that are made need to be delivered upon because the value of that promise to the person that it is being made to is held in the highest esteem.

The people need a balanced and healthy working environment and not bled for everything they’ve got.

Communication and organisation need to be efficiently and simply synchronised across the company with as fewer barriers as possible.

The senior leadership need to make all decisions in the best interests of the company and not politics, or ego boosts or quick wins.

The more of these you can accomplish the greater the improvement of staff retention.

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