Employee Retention? Or Detention?

Part of the manager’s job description is to retain the (better part of the) staff. Long-term staff accrue intimacy with the organization’s unique products and services; they are fluent in the local culture and know how to get things done. Naturally, the stars and even the solid players on the team are highly valued, especially by their direct manager whose personal success they most directly impact.


When one of those people comes into your office, closes the door and announces that s/he has decided to leave the team, shock and panic can be the automatic response. The sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/freeze) is yelling inside your head, “We’re screwed.” You feign composure and then you proceed, on the spot, to try and rescue yourself and your team by changing the employee’s mind. If you have been asleep or disinterested in personal (not personnel) management, this is the first time you have ever asked the person what would bring her true job satisfaction.

If, instead, you have practiced personal management all along, you are not really surprised. Though you could never have predicted the exact timing, you knew this moment was becoming because you, like the employee, appreciate that most of the professional development available to this person in this job has already been realized.

Ethical employee retention is a continuous process and is not so arrogant to think that it possess an employee forever. The best employees are only passing through on their career journey. Pressure, persuasion and bribes at the last minute are disrespectful to the delicate discernment that brought the employee to this point. If you are successful at swaying her, you are not practicing retention, but detention. Detentions tend to be short and the employee leaves anyway.

Any Executive Can Give a Good Speech

First comes the shock, plus sadness or relief, that the old leader is stepping down (to “focus on other pursuits” or “spend more time with family”) and a new name is being installed. Then comes the requisite staff or all-hands meeting. You listen to a polished presentation – encouraging, opportune, fresh, articulate – and you come away thinking that this new person might really be OK, might actually address the organization’s challenges and exercise good governance over the business and its employees.

PHPNW11 Audience

All Hands

Your breath of hopefulness means that the executive has accomplished the presentation’s main goals: settle nerves, hasten adjustment, and spark optimism – all of which promote a return to productivity in the work force. The broad term for this mass mood management is politics. In fact you have learned nothing about the leadership style or effectiveness of the new boss.

Giving a speech to the masses (defined as people you do not know personally but whose support you need) is the ultimate stage for the persona, that part of the psyche that is well-behaved, unoffensive, even likeable. People marvel at how they can encounter the same person in a smaller meeting, more so in a 1:1, and see a completely different, much darker character. That’s the shadow side of the psyche, the accrual of developmental defects piled on a base of shame. Balancing this darkness are the person’s gifts and virtues. Political speeches within organizations are neither good nor bad; they are just completely unrevealing.

Leader as Servant

Christ_washes_apostles'_feet_(Monreale)Leadership is very ego inflationary and needs to be consciously regulated or it will get out of control. The most ego-centric organizational leader focuses attention directly and exclusively on HIS/HER charter or mandate. If the charter succeeds (defined by some combination of perception and metrics) then I succeed. The staff who report to ME is the force at MY disposal to accomplish MY charter. I complain when my force is too small for MY charter and seek more charter when I have, or can obtain, extra force. Given these concerns, I mostly manage laterally and upward. I address MY force when I want to exercise MY power – either to reshape them or change their direction.

In servant leadership, also called “leading from behind,” the charter belongs to the team and the leader tries to help every person on that team do the best possible job, knowing that the indirect result will be a productive and creative charter. Providing individual help (leadership, counsel, mentoring, advocacy, assessment, development) means knowing each person as an individual human being, striving on a career path woven into a much larger life path. This service must be rendered, obviously, to all direct reports, but also all 2nd level reports and randomly after that. A legendary football coach once said, “You win with people.” Not force, or headcount, but a team of individuals with names, hopes, fears and desires. The servant leader willingly puts his fate as an individual into the team that he has coached and nurtured.

Priests and Prophets in Corporate Leadership


Zacharias (Michelangelo)

A wise manager – who is only wise because he learned from outside as well as inside his field – gave me this memorable parallel between corporate and religious leadership. People “of the Book” (Jews, Christians, Muslims) are all familiar with the history of the prophets. They critique the system from within, though from the margins of the organization. Prophets do not predict the future in detail but call out trends, disruptions, downward slides and divergence from core values. They see a higher ideal, a higher level of group consciousness. An organization with no capacity or tolerance for self-criticism will blindly march toward irrelevance or extinction.

But prophets are rarely popular within their organization. They do not win mass conversions and in biblical times they usually ended up dead (now retired, fired, transferred, sidelined, etc.) (Mark 6:4). They face the priesthood, whose job it is to justify and perpetuate the system. Priests provide continuity, policies (dogma), procedures (rituals) that allow the organization to join forces and move as one; they embody and give voice to the company. Every organization is self-justifying and self-perpetuating, just like every organism. Criticize it and the priests will circle the wagons. This is just normal reactivity, not some kind of evil.

Priests have a much longer life expectancy than prophets in corporate leadership. Know which one you are before you invest too much in that career path.