Tip #687: Why Top Performers Leave

The culture of a workplace – an organization’s values, norms and practices – has a huge impact on our happiness and success. Adam Grant

I just read an article by Jeff Buenrostro in the August 15th issue of Forbes. The article caught my attention because of its title: “Obituary Writing and Retention.” Catchy, isn’t it?

Mr. Buenrostro writes that leaders can retain top talent if they know what those employees value- and if those values coincide with the organization’s values.

He suggests that leaders have their employees write their own obituaries. He believes that this will benefit the leaders because they will learn what matters to their employees. He adds that it will also benefit the employees, because it requires them to think about what they want out of life.

Once the employees have identified their core values, “if an employee and an organization are a good match, these core values should align and the company should be providing avenues for the employee to achieve their lifetime goals.”

I take issue with Mr. Buenrostro’s recommendation on six points.

First, unless the organization’s core values have radically changed since the employees’ hire, I don’t think that incongruent core values is the reason why top performers leave.

Top performers leave for a variety of reasons, most of which pertain to the organization’s management style. They leave because:

  • their motivational needs have not been met;
  • there is insufficient challenge, recognition or simple appreciation for their efforts;
  • they work in a hostile environment;
  • they lack the tools or support to continue to perform at a high level;
  • they are burnt out because the managers over rely on them; and/or
  • their managers do not back them up or advocate for them.

In summary, organizations lose their top performers because the employees’ core values are not supported!

Second, the values that individuals identify when asked to write their obituary have little to no relationship to the specifics of their jobs.

I have asked participants to write their obituaries in stress management classes for over thirty years. When volunteers read their obituaries, they talk about having: made a difference; helped others; raised successful and happy children; lived a full and healthy life; been a loving helpmate; used their gifts; been true to their faith; seen their children educated; and simply been a good person.

Typically, a lot of the stress that the participants are feeling comes from their work lives. When I ask the participants to think about what is stressing them and see if it has anything to do with their desired legacy, it never does. I conclude that activity by telling them if they need to stress over something, let it be over what really matters.

Third, it is extremely intrusive to order employees to not only write their obituaries but also to share them with their management. Besides having little to do with the job, the content of their obituaries is very personal. Unless there is an unusual amount of trust in the organization, employees who are ordered to write their obituaries may feel extremely vulnerable. I notice that there is no suggestion that the leaders write and share their own.

Fourth, while I agree that we want employees to share the core values of their organization, I don’t think that having them write their obituary is the way to discover what those values are.

An obituary communicates how an individual wants to be remembered. That is different than a core value. For example, if the obituary says: “Lived a full and healthy life,” there are certainly personal values implicit in that statement, but they are not explicit. We lack sufficient information to help us identify the values that would contribute to that legacy.

If leaders want to ensure that their employees share the organization’s values, it can be done during the selection process using situational questions.

If leaders really want to retain their top performers, they need to ask them what the organization can do to better support them. Some may say “challenging work,” while others might say “more backup” or “up to date equipment and technology.”

Fifth, many employees are not even aware that their organization has core values (or a vision or mission statement). Perhaps the place to start is to discuss them in staff meetings. Better yet, what about an organization-wide event to co-design the core values? That would ensure that the employees not only know but also feel ownership of those values. Then it would be very clear that the employees and the organization were on the same page.

My sixth and final point is that an organization may claim to have core values (and may have them posted on meeting walls and printed in annual reports). Employees may share and believe in those values. But even if employee and organizational core values appear on the surface to be shared, unless management acts in accordance with these values, there is no guarantee that top performers will stay.

May your learning be sweet.


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