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Turn the “great resignation” into the “great renegotiation”

Encouraging employees to approach you with their wish lists might seem counterintuitive, but it may just be the key to retention.

The events of these past two years have been like a tornado, throwing everything into disarray. Many businesses have been trying to get back to normal. But there’s no going back. Workers are leaving their employers in droves, seeking greater fulfillment and better pay, among other opportunities. This great resignation, though, could instead be a great renegotiation. Leaders have a chance now to redesign their organizations in a way that’s more exciting and fulfilling for employees.

Doing so requires businesses to rethink their fundamental ways of operating. It means putting everything on the table, including roles, schedules, key performance indicators, individual performance metrics, and more. It takes time, energy, and work. But the incentive is clear.

I speak regularly with people who’ve recently quit their jobs and to those at all levels of organizations who are considering leaving their jobs. Many tell me they would happily stay with their employer if they could work out some changes, whether in pay, hours, opportunities for advancement, the freedom to work from anywhere, or other diverse factors. One of the big challenges for employers is understanding that different people value different things; there’s no one-size-fits-all remedy. To find solutions, employers need to listen to their employees.

But many workers don’t feel they have a voice in these matters. A 2021 survey conducted in 11 countries by technology company UKG’s Workforce Institute and the research and advisory firm Workplace Intelligence found that almost two in three employees surveyed (63%) feel their voice had been ignored in some way by their leaders, and a third (34%) would rather quit or switch teams than express their concerns.

To boost retention, leaders need to listen to employees’ concerns and ideas and come up with solutions that work for everyone. But if your organization’s culture has historically discouraged that kind of openness, it takes concrete steps to make these discussions happen. I advise four key actions.

Train employees in how to negotiate

In many organizations, negotiating is thought of as a purely external function in which someone tries to win a deal for the business. But internal negotiating is just as important. Employees need to know how to express what they’re looking for and navigate productive conversations with higher-ups. It might seem counterintuitive to train your employees how to negotiate with you, but if you’re interested in retaining them, it’s critically important.

Leaders have a chance now to redesign their organizations in a way that’s more exciting and fulfilling for employees.

Internal negotiations are often much more difficult than external ones, INSEAD professor Horacio Falcão and financial services professional Alena Komaromi explain in the INSEAD Knowledge blog. People who work together often assume they’ll have similar aims, so they’re more likely to be underprepared and fail to consider one another’s conflicting interests. Internal power dynamics also often hamper negotiations.

It helps to train employees on how to negotiate. As online employee training service Simplify Training puts it, “Being able to negotiate effectively helps you reach agreements, achieve objectives, get along better with people, and ultimately be more productive and successful on the job.” Similarly, managers should be trained in how to respond to employee requests with an open mind.

Schedule one-on-ones

Even with training, many people will still be too afraid, busy, exhausted, or discouraged to approach their managers and ask for the changes they seek. Business leaders should be proactive about initiating these conversations by scheduling one-on-one time to talk with employees, outside of performance reviews, and inviting them to discuss what they want and need in order to thrive. This is especially important for employees thought to be flight risks.

Scheduling one-one-ones gives employees the opportunity to think and prepare. It sometimes helps to call these meetings “brainstorming sessions.” This sets them up in a positive way, making it clear that they’ll be an opportunity for the manager and the employee to discuss possibilities and come up with ideas together.

Weed out bias in responses

Studies show that women and people of color are less likely to be successful in negotiations due to biases. A study by public policy expert Hannah Riley Bowles of the Harvard Kennedy School shows that women who try to negotiate “are penalized financially, are considered less hirable and less likable, and are less likely to be promoted” than men. A University of Virginia study led by organizational psychologist Morela Hernandez shows that racial prejudice plays out in similar ways, with Black people often getting worse deals.

Businesses should keep track of what employees ask for, what they receive, and what the reasons are in each case, and then examine that data to see what patterns emerge. If people in certain demographic groups regularly receive less of what they seek, address the bias.

Create open spaces for employees to discuss changes with one another

Sometimes, entire groups of people—for example, those at a certain level or in a certain unit—might want to seek changes together. They might have ideas that would help improve work life for the entire group. Leaders should create spaces internally for employees to have these conversations. In this hybrid era, it can be especially helpful to set up a channel specifically for this purpose on whichever internal messaging service you use.

The kinds of changes people seek collectively could help reshape the entire organization for the better. Giving employees a chance to bounce ideas off of one another is a great way to build solutions.

Replacing employees is enormously expensive, costing up to two times each employee’s annual salary. But the great resignation is not inevitable. Leaving a company is often someone’s last resort. Business leaders must open new opportunities for their staff to help shape their work lives—and, by extension, the organization as a whole—and reap the rewards.

Denise Hamilton

Denise Hamilton is a work culture expert specializing in inclusive leadership. She is the CEO and founder of WatchHerWork.

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