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Attenuating Attrition: How Leaders Can Create a Sticky Situation


As I led a recent session with regional executives within a global organization, the conversation turned to retention—or more accurately, attrition.

The most senior leaders lamented their powerlessness over the dynamic facing them. They described a talent market that valued a level of progression, compensation and benefits that exceeded what was expected—or accommodated—anywhere else in the world. And they expressed their frustration that global corporate standards for consistency tied their hands when it came to being able to take action locally to retain their high-value employees.

It’s a conversation that plays out daily with managers, even at the most senior levels within an organization. And it’s a conversation that reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about the vast array of levers leaders have at their disposal to affect employee engagement, retention and results.

The myth of the “big 3”

Too many leaders allow themselves to become myopically focused on three factors that contribute to (or combat) attrition: compensation, benefits and promotions. And, within many organizations, these “big three” things are in very short supply. But the reality that leaders frequently miss is that these levers barely scratch the surface of what’s possible. They allow the “big three” that are frequently out of their control to cast a long shadow, obscuring the countless other retention strategies and levers that remain within their spheres of influence.

Employees don’t leave organizations

It’s frequently said that employees don’t leave organizations; they leave managers. This suggests that leaders are erroneously externalizing the problem of retention and failing to look at the role they can play in this dynamic. They are underestimating the power they have as leaders; and they are overlooking the simple things they can do on a daily basis to engineer an environment and culture that is appealing and magnetic.

A sticky strategy

The Heath brothers coined the term ‘sticky’ to describe ideas and messages that generate traction, memorability and action. But the idea of stickiness goes far farther—and applies to the way leaders might want to think about retention. What can leaders do to create a tight and closely connected environment—one that has an adhesive quality about it? More than you might think! In fact, here are 10 sticky strategies than any leader can immediately begin to implement.

  • Support learning, development and growth. This is one of the key reasons employees join — and leave — organizations. Growth doesn’t demand a new role; rather, it requires some attention and applying creativity to the terms of the current role. And committing to training and other development opportunities telegraphs the value you place in others.
  • Encourage relationships. The more friends and strong relationships an employee enjoys within the organization, the harder it becomes to leave. So in addition to connecting with employees yourself, add greater stickiness by encouraging friendships, enabling mentorship and providing exposure to senior executives when possible.
  • Outline clear goals and expectations. Employees crave this kind of clarity. Doing so allows top performers to focus their attention and achieve results.
  • Celebrate accomplishments and progress. Buy-in and commitment grow when people feel like they’ve contributed to something. So highlight achievements. And also routinely highlight progress (as researcher Carol Dweck suggests that progress toward a goal is as motivational as accomplishing it).
  • Make work meaningful. Let people really connect with their work. Infuse it with relevance. Outline a compelling mission and vision. Allow employees to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves.
  • Talk about performance. Maintain an ongoing dialogue through coaching and feedback. And don’t think it all has to be positive. In fact, according to the research of Zenger and Folkman, top performers actually crave and appreciate constructive/corrective feedback.
  • Share control and authority. While promotions and pay may be out of your control, control certainly isn’t. Allowing others to exercise authority meets a fundamental human need for autonomy while letting employees build new capabilities.
  • Enable new experiences. Variety is the spice of (work) life. Allow employees to try new things, engage in novel activities and add to their portfolio of experiences.
  • Offer rewards and perks. Many leaders overlook the power of small things to motivate, engage and create a sticky environment. While movie tickets, a plaque or a dinner out are no substitute for compensation, they are one more way to telegraph value and create connections with others. (And don’t forget about flexible work schedules and time to recharge — today’s mega-perks!)
  • Ask and listen. Employees consistently report the power of being listened to. Feedback mechanisms that regularly poll and respond to the issues and ideas of others build commitment and stickiness into the fabric of the work.

Does doing these things inoculate a leader from ever having to address attrition? Of course not. It’s a natural and necessary part of organizational life. But using these additional levers may keep more people longer. And even when those painful resignations do happen, these sticky strategies will leave you well-poised to attract and leverage the best talent available.

Image: (c) Can Stock Photo / gamegfx


  1. I absolutely agree. When it comes to motivating and retaining people on a high quality team, “the big 3” are of less relevance. Normally, if it has to be kept in buzzwords, I tend to buy into Daniel Pink’s philosophy and go for mastery, autonomy and purpose. But with more than just buzzwords, you paint these into a bigger picture here. Excellently written!

    Henrik (@ProjektPingPong)

    • Thanks so much for your thoughts here, Henrik. I too appreciate the work of Pink… as well as Deci and Ryan’s groundbreaking work around motivation and self-determination theory (that seems to have informed Pink’s thinking). It’s wonderful to be able to look at this topic from so many angles since each person is unique, one size doesn’t fit all, and we need to create custom engagement strategies at the individual level. Keep up the good work!

  2. Appreciate and echo the thoughtful posting and comments. There’s a great deal to be said for driving Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose (Pink)! I’d like to add a little nuance to what’s been shared so far. When employees see leadership behaviors that are out of alignment with the espoused culture, organizational values, and/or their personal integrity go unchecked, that incongruence, in time, takes its toll. If we accept the premise that departures are driven by poor, ineffective leadership, the consequences should be laid at the feet of the organization that either failed to develop, reinforce, correct or extinguish +/- leadership behaviors. Implicit or explicit acceptance of poor management as a means to an end results in people leaving organizations. Organizations shouldn’t get off scot-free when poorly managed leaders drive talent away? One thing about negative experiences – they get shared more than we think but rarely show up in exit interviews. The bottom line, when people have a reason to stay, they stay. When they have something they believe in that gives them purpose and utilizes their talents, they stay … until something better comes along. We probably need to redefine what good “stickiness” looks like in terms of who, what, where, when, and how long = committed/high performing. What actually sticks might be part of the problem. (See Schneider Attraction, Selection, Attrition

    • Thanks, Anna, for this thoughtful response. I couldn’t agree more. That incongruence is detrimental on so many levels. And I love your idea of defining ‘good stickiness’. It strikes me that organizations benefit from fresh blood/perspectives, making some attrition necessary. But it all comes down to the who, what, where, when as how long…. as you stated. I really appreciate your sharing, Anna.


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