Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Jan. 6, 2021.
Employee turnover is costly and can hurt productivity, but advances in data analytics are helping to identify specific leadership behaviors that cause workers to quit, Jon Christiansen, co-founder of Insights and Outcomes, writes for Harvard Business Review.
The 8 mistakes that cause employees to quit
According to Christiansen, it can take "an average of 24 days to fill a job, costing employers up to $4,000 per hire—maybe more, depending on your industry."
The best way to avoid these costs is to prevent turnover in the first place. Christiansen, who has spent the last 15 years exploring employee retention as a data scientist, writes that there are eight main managerial behaviors that lead their employees to leave.
Manager mistake #1: "Setting inconsistent goals and expectations." When employees must choose between competing tasks without clear guidance, "the result is a team of stressed out people without clear priorities," Christiansen writes.
To avoid this problem, Christiansen suggests following the lead of a surprising exemplar: Disney. Every employee in the Magic Kingdom receives a list of priorities, Christiansen explains, ordered from most to least important. That way, team members are never confused about which expectation takes precedence.
Manager mistake #2: "Having too many process constraints." A process constraint occurs when employees cannot complete their responsibilities due to some obstacle—usually a lack of information or resources. If employees feel they're being held accountable for a job they can't actually do, they may begin to feel disenfranchised and disengaged, Christiansen writes.
To avoid that outcome, Christiansen recommends that managers take into account these constraints when evaluating an employee's performance. "Look at the criteria, and consider how much control your employee has over their outcomes, as well as how much control you have over any constraints that may be affecting their output," he writes.
Manager mistake #3: "Wasting your resources." The most precious resource for most managers is their employees' time, but many fail to allocate that resource thoughtfully, Christiansen writes.
For instance, consider a marketing manager who is told on a Tuesday that they have until Friday to roll out a new marketing campaign—but they're so crunched with meetings in the intervening days that they have no time to work on the campaign. If those meetings aren't actually as important as the new deadline, then much of the employee's time could be wasted.
Christiansen writes that ranking each employee's priorities can assist them in managing their time effectively. "Before assigning them additional tasks … ask, 'Is this new task a priority? …' If the answer is 'no,' give them space to do their most important work," he writes.
Manager mistake #4: "Putting people in the wrong positions." When employees aren't operating at the top of their license or skill level, they're likely to feel "undervalued and faceless," according to Christiansen.
To prevent this outcome, managers should be transparent about a role's responsibilities during the interview process. If you notice "knowledge waste" in a current employee, you can "[s]tart by checking the job description your employee was hired into, and compare it against their current task load," Christiansen writes. From there, Christiansen writes, "you can come up with a plan to help them take on more meaningful responsibilities, and drop tasks that add the least value to your team."
Manager mistake #5: "Assigning boring, or overly easy, tasks." Boring tasks can make workers feel "physically and emotionally exhausted," Christiansen writes, leading to a spiral of dissatisfaction, disengagement, and ultimately despair.
To prevent team members from getting bored, managers should dive deep into each employee's unique interests. "Based on their answers, give them work that will enhance their knowledge, skills, or help them grow in the right direction," Christiansen writes.
Manager mistake #6: "Failing to create a psychologically safe culture." If your team members are sitting silently in meetings or acquiescing to changes without comment, this could be a sign that your workplace has created a culture of fear, according to Christiansen.
To create a psychologically safe environment, managers must demonstrate that they're open to new ideas. "[A]sk questions before posing answers, and reward those who speak up," Christiansen writes. Managers should also "[c]onsider all viewpoints when brainstorming solutions to difficult problems and make sure your team knows that there is no such thing as a 'wrong answer.'"
Manager mistake #7: "Creating a work environment that is too safe." On the flip side, a work culture without any "pressure and friction" can make employees question the value of their work, Christiansen writes.
To prevent this, Christiansen recommends that mangers strike a balance between both positive and negative feedback. "When delivered thoughtfully and without judgement, negative feedback can give people something meaningful to work toward," he writes.
Manager mistake #8: "Leading with bias." To avoid making biased decisions, managers should first ask what is driving their big decisions. "Are you basing your choices off of evidence, or preference? Have you considered other perspectives? Are there any gaps in your knowledge you need to fill first," Christiansen writes.
Although even the best managers will still face some employee turnover, understanding these eight mistakes "will help you identify those who are at flight risk, and make changes that may convince them to stay," Christiansen writes (Christiansen, Harvard Business Review, 9/10).