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Win the war for talent with 4 simple questions

The war for talent doesn't have to be a losing battle, especially if leaders ask these 4 key questions of their employees.

6 min read


Illustration for the war for talent

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It’s no secret that employee resignations are at or near all-time highs. In fact, figures released in January show that 4.5 million people voluntarily left their jobs in November. This is 3% of the nonfarm workforce — a record, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not only that, the war for talent will continue, as a survey indicates that 40% of workers plan to leave their jobs this year, including a whopping 65% of Gen Z workers.

As any HR executive will also tell you, it costs at least 1.5 times the salary of a departing employee to replace them. This doesn’t even include the impact of lost legacy knowledge, lower employee morale and a potential tidal wave of other employees who follow suit.

But as it turns out, there’s a simple but effective way to help prevent this expensive problem—and for only a fraction of the time, resources and energy it takes to replace an employee.

As the challenges of today’s job market have mounted, with companies everywhere struggling with labor shortages, skills gaps and turnover, leaders have increasingly been turning to stay interviews to help inform their employee retention strategy.

Much like an exit interview, a stay interview is a conversation with your current workforce to understand what’s making them stay, what could possibly make them look elsewhere and, ultimately, what the organization could do to help increase their engagement and satisfaction.

Conducting stay interviews not only helps company leaders gain valuable insights, it also communicates to workers that you actually care. And when it comes to retaining younger generations who are increasingly demanding more from the workplace, sometimes simply enabling them to make their voices heard will go a long way to making them feel valued and reducing churn.

The idea is that, if you conduct stay interviews effectively enough — and take action based on what you learn — you’ll have a lot less exit interviews to deal with.

The power of asking “the question after the question”

Years ago, when I was dating a woman named Carol, I asked her what she thought the perfect week would look like. She replied: getting a manicure and pedicure, planning a trip and throwing a small dinner party with friends.

Two years later,  we were married (and still are). During  the early years, I made sure we hosted a dinner party at our house every weekend. Together, we decided the menu, shopped for the items and prepared the food. Carol would set a beautiful table. However, I gradually noticed she was less and less excited about the parties.

When I asked why, her reply surprised me. She said, “I found out I don’t really like anything about the preparation except setting the table.”

We still host dinner parties together. But from that day on, I have done all the food prep and cooking so Carol can focus on setting an applause-worthy table.

In life or work, it’s important to know what motivates people who choose to be with you

With this in mind, here are the four essential questions every leader should personally ask individuals on their team to encourage top talent to stick around longer. The questions might seem simple, but I can tell you from experience that most leaders haven’t asked them — even though they play a pivotal role in winning the war for talent.

1. Why do you work?

At this point in the Great Resignation, it’s clear that an increasing number of people don’t have to work. Or, at least, they’re willing to go without employment until they find the right position or company. (This is especially true among top employees and Gen Z workers.)

The “why behind the what” is an essential piece of information every leader should know about their individual team members.

2. Why do you work here?

These days most people can choose to work anywhere, and they are increasingly doing so. It’s a buyer’s market—jobs are plentiful and workers have more options than ever before.

To set yourself apart from the competition and retain your best employees, it’s important to understand the primary motivating reason people work for you. While most business leaders misidentify that reason, stay interviews can help you pinpoint individual rationale and gather data over time to discover larger trends in motivations.

3. What do you love most about your job?

The late great Joe Lichtenberg, a world-renowned psychoanalyst and a dear friend, identified the seven motivational systems that drive the human mind and behavior. Similarly, everyone has something that motivates them to stay in their particular role.

Asking employees what they love most about their specific jobs is perhaps the most simple, straightforward way to determine exactly what that is. Then, objectively analyze their answer so you can be sure you’re getting it right. The practice of asking “the question after the question” will help you gain greater insights.

4. With whom do you look forward to working with each week?

Team dynamics is another important factor influencing employee turnover or retention, so the answer to this question could provide you with very valuable information to inform your strategy.

It has never been more important for a leader to know what (and who) motivates their people. Assumptions will almost always be wrong, so it’s critical to take the time to have those conversations, go deeper and always ask the “question after the question.” Being armed with this information will help drive retention, fight the war for talent and protect you from being a victim of the Great Resignation.

Joe Caruso is founder and president of Caruso Leadership Institute, as well as author of a best-selling book and PBS special, both called “The Power of Losing Control.” Caruso is an expert on the individual mind, the collective mind of an organization and how meaning drives our behavior and determines outcomes in all aspects of life. He is an in-demand keynote speaker worldwide, a syndicated columnist and a sought-after business adviser. His expansive list of corporate clients includes: America Express, American Heart Association, Wells Fargo, Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), Hyatt, Domino’s, Westin Hotels & Resorts, Marriott International, the U.S. Navy and dozens more. For more information, please visit his website.

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