How to Keep Your Best People in a Disrupted Workplace

Retaining employees these days means getting a deeper understanding of what their needs and vulnerabilities are. But doing that means leaders need to be vulnerable too.


Last week, Associations Now published its latest Deep Dive package, “No Going Back,” which covers the new association workplace. Circling around that theme is a complicated question that’s become more urgent than ever: What’s a workplace?

The question is more urgent now because whatever a “workplace” means now, more people feel comfortable leaving it. Various recent surveys point to cases where majorities of employees say they’re ready to leave their current positions—and that those majorities escalate if employers institute hard-line return-to-office policies. Only 20 percent of employees want to be in an office full-time, according to a survey released last week by Future Forum, but as a report from Fortune points out, employers increasingly want workers back in person.

That’s bound to be an increasing source of tension, one that directly impacts retention. Addressing that challenge is the topic of one of the stories I contributed to the package, “Six Ways to Keep Your Best People.” There’s some good advice there, all rooted in an organization that recognizes that challenges won’t be solved by return-to-office edicts (or money), but rather by understanding its people. As Amanda Haddaway, executive coach and managing director of HR Answerbox told me, “the associations and nonprofits that are doing really well in retaining their people are the organizations that have invested and really intentionally created workplace cultures that work for their employees.”

Associations that are doing well are the ones that have intentionally created cultures that work for their employees.

One way to create that culture is to encourage open conversations about where employees are at. I particularly like Haddaway’s recommendation of a “stay interview”—essentially a more sophisticated check-in, one that emphasizes conversation about an employee’s long-term goals. Often, those conversations can reveal the kinds of challenges that make solving the return-to-office challenge so difficult. “You may know your employees, but you don’t always understand their family situations,” she says. “You might not know about other responsibilities that they have outside of work, underlying health issues, or any concerns around health and safety that are causing employees to pause about going back to the office.”

The thing about that kind of vulnerability, though, is that it’s a two-way street. And I suspect that many return-to-office plans go sideways because leaders aren’t similarly candid about what they feel their needs and intentions are. (The sources in another article I contributed, “A Skill-Set Revamp for Leaders,” discusses how leaders’ unspoken biases tend to trip up workplace discussions.)

How to improve that situation? In a recent Harvard Business Review article, London Business School professor Dan Cable talks about what he calls “confident vulnerability”—a leader’s capacity to share mistakes, which can help elicit deeper, more actionable feedback. Rather than projecting weakness, that kind of sharing can create more openness. “Talk to your team about times in your life when you stumbled and got constructive feedback that you needed to improve and adapt,” he writes. “When leaders reveal their trip-ups and failures — rather than hiding them — they are seen as more approachable and less arrogant. Revealing these learning moments also signals that you are not threatened by feedback.”

That in itself may not solve an association’s retention problems. But it gets you a little closer to a definition of a workplace—an environment where people get things done and that’s rooted in a culture that values understanding, honesty, and respect for others’ needs.

(Parradee Kietsirikul/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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