It used to be that employee retention issues were solved with money – just throw more cash at people, and they’ll stick around – but these days, it’s different. Sure, everybody appreciates money, and highly competitive wages and incentive compensation are critical, but it’s time to rethink traditional approaches to preventing turnover.
In this day and age, it’s crucial that leaders are connecting with their staff. And that is all about leaders cultivating self-awareness and emotional intelligence, which go hand-in-hand. I’ve been at Garver for more than 10 years, and when I reflect on what keeps people at the same firm long-term and what creates highly functional, efficient teams, it comes down to leaders creating an environment where staff feel championed. That relies on three interconnected concepts:
- Building trust. Leaders set the tone within a company, so it’s important to train them to build trust – especially during a time when distrust seems to be the default position for many. The mid-managers and team leaders throughout my organization are capable, competent folks. But it’s imperative that we encourage them to prioritize proactive, informal communication with their teams in order to build rapport and develop trust. So how do they do that?
- Creating psychological safety. Building trust starts with creating a space where people feel comfortable expressing themselves and sharing ideas and opinions without fear of being humiliated or denigrated. Once people feel that they are in a safe environment, they will be more inclined to collaborate and more likely to feel a sense of belonging and connection. So how do leaders develop psychological safety in the workplace?
- Cultivating emotional intelligence. It all starts with the leader having emotional intelligence or self-awareness. I’d argue that this is the bedrock of a successful team and the key to retention. Communication, conflict resolution, accountability, vulnerability, and empathy all arise out of self-awareness and emotional intelligence, or the ability to understand and manage one’s own emotions, as well as recognize others’ emotions and perspectives. The leaders have to be adept at this first before anyone can benefit.
Leaders become more authentic and transparent when they know who they are – their strengths, weaknesses, and how others perceive them.
And, though it’s not always easy, this means allowing yourself (you, the leader!) to be vulnerable. When leaders are candid about their shortcomings, a shift happens. I’m encouraging my leaders to take a “feedforward” (instead of feedback) approach. This means being intentional with their time and scheduling informal conversations with their teams that provide that opportunity for vulnerability. It can be as easy as leading in with a simple statement of a behavior the leader wants to change. An example would be the leader saying, “I know that I need to work on active listening. I’m impatient with conversations that I don’t perceive to be a top priority. That’s a personality trait I’d like to fix.” This should be said to a team member or peer and the leader should encourage suggestions for improvement. Then just listen – and say thank you. No rebuttals, no defensiveness. That’s it. Everyone grows in this scenario.
Soliciting feedback, in a forward approach, helps set an example and boosts trust. And the truth is that expressing a willingness to improve, and showing your own vulnerability, is a mark of strength.
These aren’t new ideas, or my ideas, and they are well documented in dozens of leadership books from Dale Carnegie to Marshall Goldsmith, but so often they remain abstract rather than something you can put into practice. So, if you’re going to do just one thing, do this: Point those feet firmly forward and go ask one person you work with about how you can improve a certain behavior. And then listen. Then see how that impacts you as a leader.
Your workplace should be a space for learning, innovation, and growth – personal and professional. That hinges on trust, psychological safety, and cultivating emotional intelligence. Learning new behaviors takes commitment, but the tradeoff is well worth it – and essential.
Jeff Sober, P.E., B.C.E.E., is director of water services at Garver. Connect with him on LinkedIn.