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Kerrying On

The Roi-Tan Cemetery

When I was a little tyke, I loved insects. Sometimes I’d watch ants for hours as they hauled Lilliputian bundles down footprint valleys and up tennis-shoe mountains. On listless summer days, I’d crumble a Necco wafer over our front-porch deck and then sit back and watch as hundreds of tiny stevedores struggled to carry pastel sugar boulders across the mottled surface.

My dad, seeing that insects fascinated me, helped me move from casual observer to ardent hunter. He encouraged me to start a full-fledged collection by scrounging a discarded Roi-Tan cigar box and pouring melted paraffin in the bottom. After the wax hardened, he presented me with a covered pin board to be used for mounting dead bugs.

I delighted in the gift. For a week I scurried around with a quart jar, capturing anything that had the temerity to crawl or fly within my reach. Within a few days, I had packed my homemade display case with spiders, dragonflies, and beetles—all neatly pierced with a pin and exhibited in rows, carefully arranged by species and size.

Surprisingly, despite my original enthusiasm, I quickly became bored with the hobby. My parents chided me for not having “stick-to-itiveness,” but I felt no guilt. I hadn’t loved insects in the first place. What I had loved was insect life. The job of managing a bug cemetery didn’t hold much appeal. I preferred watching two armies of ants battle feverishly over a decaying bird. Catching a glimpse of a beetle taking flight (not unlike a garbage truck going airborne) was equally fascinating. In contrast, gawking at a specimen trapped in a box with a pin stuck through its heart wasn’t the least bit interesting. To me, insect carcasses just weren’t insects.

My mind turned to that Roi-Tan Cemetery one day a few years back when (as part of a nation-wide talk show book tour) I was interviewed on a live, radio talk show. The host asked me questions about our latest book—the one that dealt with the dos and don’ts of high-stakes, emotional conversations.

“So,” queried the host, “how do you use the communication tools you teach in your book to get your boss?”

“Excuse me,” I stammered.

“You know,” the host continued, “your book covers all kinds of ways to talk about touchy subjects. Can’t you use the tricks to get someone—like a controlling boss you’d like to see suffer?”

“Actually,” I replied, “we wrote about skills that help individuals come to a common understanding—one that values mutual respect over manipulation.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the host pushed on, “but to get someone, what do you do?”

This experience (and dozens like it) sets up a related question that people ask me all the time. Individuals read one of our interpersonal-skills books and ask: Can’t people use the techniques the book teaches to serve their own selfish purposes? Can’t angels and devils alike use the same methods?

Which returns me to my bug cemetery. Social skills (from praise, to conflict resolution, to active listening), like the insects I captured as a boy, have a soul. And, like all living creatures, if you dissect interpersonal skills until all that remain are lifeless component parts, you’ve captured the parts but lost the soul. For example, praise (a much practiced and needed social skill) stuck to a wax board with a pin through its heart—despite its toothy smile and flattering language—takes on an aseptic, clinical sheen and becomes nothing more than a divisive tool when wielded by individuals whose only intention is to get or manipulate someone.

The grand prize for stripping a social skill of any vestiges of life, and then using it in a devilish way, has to be given to an MBA student I once taught. He wrote a haunting paper about how he had employed positive reinforcement to entice his roommate’s significant other to leave her boyfriend and, instead, hook up with him. Day by day, he plotted new ways to “reward” his unsuspecting target until he achieved his goal and stole the girl right out from under his roommate’s nose. It was enough to make your skin crawl.

Despite the potential for abuse, today, when people suggest that angels and devils alike can use social skills to their advantage, I don’t become discouraged. Instead, I think of the angels. Oh, the angels and the tales they tell! Scarcely a day passes that a reader of our material doesn’t bless us with a wonderful story of how he or she used newly-acquired skills to strengthen a long-estranged relationship, save a union, or humanely hold others accountable. People can and do learn new interpersonal skills. They can and do apply them professionally. They can and do honor the underlying principles of Mutual Respect and dignity.

But then again, there’s still that chance that you could misapply a well-intended skill, so take care. Stay true to the principles and values that breathe life into any human interaction by starting all influence attempts with a virtuous purpose. Hold true to the goal of improving the lives of everyone concerned. Use your skills to work with, and not on, people. By doing your best to enhance the well-being of the people you’re working with, you can keep the skills you’ve learned alive and kicking rather than on display in a Roi-Tan Cemetery.

Crucial Application

Politics: It’s How You Disagree

Download or view the infographic below:

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Crucial Conversations QA

How to Increase Your Conversational Skills

Dear David,

How do you make and keep friends when you are inept in conversation? I can be in a crowded room, sit in one corner and just people watch because I have nothing to say. Also, if I have an opportunity to go out to places where there will be more than two people, I find every excuse not to go. Sometimes I manage to push myself out the door, but rarely. Any ideas?

Sincerely,
A Couch Potato (in front of a computer)

Dear Couch Potato,

I can certainly say, “been there, done that!” I was painfully shy and socially inept well in to my thirties. Some would say I remain pretty socially inept. I guess my own situation explains in part why I chose to dive deeply into the study of psychology.

While in graduate school at Stanford, I volunteered at a Shyness Clinic that Phil Zimbardo was running as a part of his research. He eventually wrote an excellent book, Shyness: What It Is, What To Do About It. I recommend checking it out.

Before I began working with Phil, I had assumed most shyness was due to poor social skills. But it turned out I was wrong. The shy people we studied were actually quite skilled. The problem was they were also harsh self-critics and were extra-sensitive to social rejection. It turns out most of us fumble and stumble our way through social situations; and shy people notice their slip-ups more than the rest of us.

What helped these people the most was to practice conversations, warts and all, until they realized their fumbles weren’t any worse than anyone else’s. Of course, this practice also helped them improve their conversation skills. With that in mind, I’ll suggest a couple of ideas for practice.

Conversational Tennis. This game comes from my dear friend, Al Switzler. I’ve used it myself, and with many of my nieces and nephews. You play it with one or two other people, perhaps on a car trip or during a meal. Here is the setup: The goal is to keep the conversation going. One person begins by serving a topic across the net. The other person’s goal is to respond to the topic in a way that sends it back across the net, and keeps the conversation going. See how long you can keep the topic in the air. After a while, it will be the other person’s turn to serve up his or her own topic.

This game works well to practice keeping conversations alive. I find it’s really fun with teens who are used to responding in monosyllabic grunts and nods. They quickly see what it takes to participate in a conversation.

Topics to Discuss. You can find several websites that suggest conversation starters. And there is some excellent research on how the topics of conversations flow among strangers and friends. The basic finding is that we begin by talking about very broad and noncontroversial topics, such as the weather, traffic, or jobs. These are easy topics for others to hit back across the net. We use them to keep the conversation going while we listen for common interests and other, more personal, connections.

As we begin to feel safer with the person, we reveal more about ourselves. We test how safe and rewarding it is to disclose our interests, our hopes, and our fears. This phase of the conversation is a bit like a dance. Disclose too much too soon, or ask questions that are too personal too soon, and your partner will feel uncomfortable. Keep the conversation on surface topics for too long, and the person will think you don’t want a personal relationship.

The researcher, Arthur Aron, has studied this process in the lab, by giving strangers a series of questions to discuss with each other. The questions begin at a surface level but become increasingly personal over the forty-five minutes of the experiment. Because of the situation, people feel fairly safe with each other. As the questions become more personal, they often find themselves disclosing information they’ve never shared with anyone before. When they see the way their partner reacts to their revelations, they develop trust, liking, and even affection for them. In fact, these questions have developed the reputation as “The 36 Questions to Fall in Love.”

Rules of Improv. Where should you start? I suggest you begin with low-stakes conversations—perhaps with phone calls with family members. I don’t know about you, but I try to call my mom every day. Use conversations like these to test out topics that work for you. In addition, follow the First Rule of Improv: “Always AGREE, and SAY YES!” This rule doesn’t mean you should “agree” or “say yes” to everything your conversational partner says. Instead, it means you should respect what they’ve said, and hit the topic back to them in a way that is safe and easy for them to respond to. The rule is another take on conversational tennis.

I hope these ideas will be helpful. Now turn off your computer and call your mom.

Best Wishes,
David

Influencer QA

False Perceptions Revisited

Dear Emily,

I appreciated your blog article Recovering from False Perceptions. I agree that apologies can do more harm than good, and it is important to assess the need and/or reason for the apology. However, that post was more from the point of view of the individual with the false perception. I was interested to see what your advice would be to someone who feels they are the victim of false perceptions. I have an employee whose coworkers have labeled as lazy, uncaring, and untrustworthy. He wants to restore his image/brand with his coworkers and managers. What advice do you have for someone in this situation?

Signed,
Wanting to Help

Dear Wanting to Help,

Combating false perceptions can be frustrating. We often feel as if we are the Victim: “Others have misjudged me despite my hard work, exemplary efforts, and noteworthy achievements!” We may cast our coworkers in a Villain role: “Why can’t they just see me for who I really am?” And then we start to feel Helpless: “This is so unfair and there is nothing I can do about it!”

So, while your question is about personal brand, I’d like to look at it through the lens of what we teach in Crucial Conversations Training about Mastering Our Stories. I will direct my comments directly to your employee, the person who wants to restore his brand.

Victim story: What am I pretending not to notice about my role?

Whenever we tell ourselves a Victim Story (“Woe is me! I am the best, hardest-working employee here and others have unjustly judged me as lazy, uncaring, and untrustworthy.”), we need to challenge our story by asking: “What I am pretending not to notice about my role in the problem?” I have several ideas on how this relates to perception and personal brand:

1. False perceptions don’t exist. There is only your perception of my behavior and my perception of my behavior. Just because your perception is different than mine doesn’t mean it is false. When I judge your perception as false, it lets me off the hook. It allows me to say, “I am right and good and just and you are wrong.” I get to stop looking at me and my behavior because my perception is true and yours is false. But, if I can accept your perception as valid and real, I can shift my thinking and open myself up to self-reflection. I can clearly see what things I have done or not done that may have contributed to your perception.

2. Accept the starting point. You don’t get to tell people what your personal brand is, anymore than Nordstrom or Coca-Cola get to tell people what their brand is. You get to act and people get to perceive. Their perception is your brand. We sometimes confuse personal brand with personal identity, personal values, or personal mission. It is easy to say, “That is not my brand. I am disciplined, focused, and driven.” While it may be true that your personal identity is disciplined, focused, and driven, and that your personal identity impacts your brand, recognize that it is not your brand. Your brand is how others perceive you, not how you perceive yourself. While you get to influence your brand, you don’t control it because you can only influence, never control, others’ perceptions.

Villain Story: Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this?

When we tell ourselves the story that someone else has falsely judged us, we get to cast them in the Villain role: “They are wrong. How could they be so unseeing of the true me?” The antidote to a Villain Story is to ask yourself: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do (or think) this?”

3. Understand your brand. If you want to know why someone thinks of you as lazy and untrustworthy, the easiest way to find out is to ask them. But before you rush out to start this conversation, realize this—asking for feedback on your personal brand is NOT a crucial conversation. Sure, the stakes are high and your emotions may run strong. And yes, there are differing opinions. So why is this not a crucial conversation? When we talk about crucial conversations, the goal is to fill the Pool of Shared Meaning: yours and mine. In this particular case however, the goal is to fill the pool with only their meaning. This is a focus group, not a conversation.

Think of it this way. If I work in marketing and want to know what my company’s brand is in the marketplace, I get a group of people together and ask them questions about how they perceive my company. When they respond, I may probe deeper to understand. What I don’t do is say, “Oh, that is interesting and not at all what we are really about. Our company is actually very different than that and here’s why.”

Asking people about your brand is all about getting information and understanding your brand. It is not about you convincing others with your words that they should see you differently.

Helpless Story: What can I do right now to move toward what I really want?

When we accept that we can’t control others’ perceptions of us, it is tempting to tell ourselves a helpless story: “Their perception is their perception and there is nothing I can do.” We fail to see the difference between control and influence. While you can’t control others’ perceptions, you can influence them, as all good brand marketers know. You open yourself to influence when you consider this question: “What can I do right now to move toward what I really want?”

4. Build a positive brand, not a non-negative brand. Don’t wage war against your negative brand and try to convince people that you are “not lazy, not uncaring, and not untrustworthy.” Being “not lazy” is not a powerful brand. Rather than try to erase the negative brand, focus your attentions on defining what positive brand you want to create: “I am a hard worker that gets great results. I am a people person who cares deeply about individuals.”

Once you have defined that positive brand, consider what behaviors or actions on your part would drive that perception in others. What would someone see that would lead him or her to conclude that you are a hard worker who gets results? What would someone see that would lead him or her to the conclusion that you are a people person who cares deeply about individuals?

These might be new behaviors for you. But the key is that they need to be behaviors that are visible to others if they are going to impact others’ perceptions.

Armed with these new behaviors, you can then create a change plan for enacting these behaviors.

5. Close the loop. This is a powerful step in personal brand building. You have asked for feedback on your brand, accepted it, and now acted upon it. Now is the time to go back and close the loop. Return to those who gave you feedback and say: “Here is what I have done with the information you gave me. Have you seen an impact?”

This is powerful for two reasons. First, it validates and strengthens the relationship because you are demonstrating deep respect to the other person. You took what they said and did something about it.

Second, if the other person hasn’t noticed a change (and hence your brand hasn’t changed), this provides a nudge for them to reflect and re-evaluate. They might say, “I hadn’t noticed the change, but now that you point it out . . . ” Or, if upon reflection, they haven’t seen the change and their perception hasn’t begun to shift, that is a great data point for you as you consider whether the behaviors you have changed are driving the results you want.

I hope this gives you some helpful ideas. Just remember, your personal brand is about you, not about the other person. You can influence your brand when you stop telling yourself Victim, Villain, and Helpless Stories.

Good luck,
Emily

Crucial Conversations QA

Manipulating Crucial Skills

Dear Joseph,

My boss is a big fan of yours, but I think he’s misusing his understanding of your material to bully people then patting himself on the back for being a great communicator.

I might approach him and say, “When I said [blank] in that meeting, you cut me off and responded in a tone that sounded sarcastic. I felt that you were not listening to my opinion.”

He’ll respond, “You need to ask yourself how you are perceiving the situation. You need to choose not to get upset. You should look at the situation as an opportunity to communicate. The more you practice, the better you will become.”

How can I approach this with him so that he will at least consider that he might need to change his own behavior?

Signed,
Not Just About Me

Dear Not Just About Me,

I can feel your frustration. You’ve got a boss who has the solution to his own problem in his hands, but appears to be using it on everyone but himself.

I felt a bit of embarrassment as I read your question because I realized I can be that guy sometimes, too. I think most of us are better at diagnosing others than fixing ourselves. So my advice to you is:

1. Look for the truth.
It seems that your focus is on how he is falling short of what he advocates. Don’t make the mistake of declining truth no matter the messenger. A friend used to say, “Even a hypocrite is useful if for nothing other than a bad example.” Your boss is challenging you to examine your own stories and emotions. If you want to gain the moral authority to ask him to listen to your feedback, first listen to his.

2. Challenge your view. Find a way to critique your own critique of the boss. Find others who might have a different view so you can confirm your criticisms of him aren’t exaggerated or self-serving. Be sure you aren’t taking things personally that others tend to brush-off. Confirm you are not making mountains out of what others think are molehills. Ask them for feedback about you as well so you can put your own house in order before attempting to address his.

3. Offer feedback. If you do a quality job on #1 and #2, you’re ready to talk. Begin by checking to see if he is ready. Acknowledge your concerns, but assure him your goal is dialogue not monologue. For example, “Boss, I’d like a few minutes to share some concerns and to invite your feedback as well. There are some things that are getting in my way. I realize some of them might be about me. Could we schedule some time when I could share my view and listen to yours, too?”

4. Give him a reason to listen. As you ask for this appointment, be sure to offer a Mutual Purpose. Asking, “Can I point out your flaws for fifteen solid minutes?” might not be very motivating to him. So help him frame this as a sincere opportunity to help him get something that is important to him—while also acknowledging its importance to you, too. For example: “After some of our staff meetings, I find myself feeling discouraged and disconnected. I don’t want to bring that to your team. I want to do my best work for you and for our customers. I want to feel 100% engaged in a way that you are thrilled about. That’s what this conversation is about. Can we talk?”

5. Share facts, not judgments. This is the tricky part. I worry from the tone of your question that you’ve got a lot of judgments about your boss. If so, you need to shed them as best you can. Otherwise, they will creep into your tone and word choice. You’ve got to see him as a reasonable, rational, decent person. You must come to see his weaknesses as human not villainous. I don’t mean to suggest you should put up with the weaknesses—just don’t turn him from a human into a villain because of them. As you offer your feedback, be sure to share facts and behaviors not judgments and emotions. For example, don’t say, “You misuse Crucial Conversations principles to bully people.” That’s a judgment. Rather, you might say, “When I try to share concerns about how you handled something in a meeting, you point out what I did wrong. This has happened four times.”

6. If he shows no interest, let it go and make a decision. No matter how scrupulous you are about examining yourself, creating safety, and offering facts, some people won’t listen. If, after making your best attempt, he appears impervious to feedback, you’ve got a choice to make. You must accept that this is who he is likely to be for the foreseeable future. Then you have to decide if you’re quality of life is enough at risk to make a change, or if this is trivial enough that you can cope. If you choose to cope, then acknowledge that you are making a decision to stay. Don’t play the victim by staying and blaming him. From this point forward, it is your choice to accept him as he is. If you can’t, then you have three options: 1. Stay, but find a way to distance yourself from his weaknesses; 2. Stay in the company but change bosses; or 3. Change companies. Some might complain at this advice, thinking, “That’s not fair! Why should his weaknesses mean that I have to change?” The answer is: “Because that’s how life works.” The only thing you can control is yourself. Everything else is about influence. If influence fails, controlling yourself is all you’ve got.

I hope influence works. It will be good for both you and him. And if not, I hope you can find a path to peace that works for you.

Sincerely,
Joseph

Kerrying On

The Importance of Intent

When I was twelve years old and William “Pop” Noonan first invited me to operate his corner grocery store while he spent his Saturdays running errands, I quickly accepted the job—and then repeatedly botched it. I took so many missteps that I’m sure he would have fired me were it not for the fact that he was my grandfather.

For example, on the very first day at work, Mrs. O’Malley asked me for two pounds of cheese for the casserole she was making. I cut off a hunk from the bulk slab, weighed it, cut another chunk, weighed it, and continued whacking and weighing until there were two chunks and nine odd-shaped chips and clumps of cheese that came to exactly two pounds—just as requested.

Mrs. O’Malley took one look at the motley stack, shook her head and muttered, “Kids!” I was only a kid, so grandpa didn’t fire me simply because I didn’t know proper cheese-cutting protocol.

He probably should have fired me when I invited a couple of friends to visit me at the store one Saturday, and we produced and distributed our very own candy invention—chili powder gum. Noonan’s Grocery sold hollow gumballs and cans of chili powder, plus there were lots of kids coming and going. It was the perfect storm, and many a neighborhood kid was caught by surprise when he or she unsuspectingly bit into one of our concoctions. Despite the outcries of the neighborhood kids, Grandpa still didn’t dismiss me.

The biggest mistake I made came a couple of years later, when business for corner grocery stores had slowed to a trickle. Because of this, I agreed to help my friend Rick Eherenfield with his algebra during the long breaks between customers. I was a year ahead of Rick in math, and could be of some use to him. By my estimation, I was doing a nice thing.

Rick and I were in the back room noodling over his algebra assignment when the brass bell hanging over the front door rang. I jumped to my feet and ran through the swinging door that hung between the store and the back room and up to the counter. There stood Mrs. Kratz. Uh oh. Not Mrs. Kratz. She was one of those rare customers who still did all of her shopping at the corner store. One look at her resolve and I could tell that fetching and bagging her groceries was going to take a long time. Rick was waiting in the back room. We had algebra to do. And then there was the fact that Mrs. Kratz criticized my every move. The overall effect was to put me in a big hurry to finish the job and return to the back room where the meaning of X was still waiting to be discovered.

Mrs. Kratz was having none of it. “I’ll have a dozen slices of bologna,” she drawled. Next came a carton of cigarettes, needles for her sewing kit, and a package of Rit Dye for a faded shirt she was reclaiming. What did I prefer—dark purple or a slightly less dark purple? It plodded along like this for fifteen minutes.

Finally came the summing of the bill. I looked down on a paper bag that I had used to write the prices of her purchases, added them up, and pronounced the total: “Twelve seventy-three.” Mrs. Kratz made me sum it again. Then again. Eventually, she snatched up her two bags, I opened the front door for her, and the bell rang twice—Ding! Ding!—announcing my escape from her tyranny. I bolted to the back room and continued helping Rick with his algebra.

Three days later, Grandpa summoned Mom, Dad, and me to the store for a short visit. Once gathered, Grandpa explained that I had lost him his longest standing and most loyal customer—Mrs. Kratz. She complained that while serving her, I had been in such a hurry to get her out the front door that it was disrespectful. According to her, I kept looking at my watch and rapidly tapping a pencil. She had never seen such impertinence and would “never darken the door” of Grandpa’s store again. It was then that I learned that even though I had gone through all the motions and had helped a demanding customer, my intent toward her had been evident, and I had failed in my customer service duties. Even though I had been in a hurry because I wanted to help a friend with algebra (a nice thing), it didn’t matter. I would have to prove myself a worthy merchant once more.

The next Saturday, I set about the task of doing just that. First, I swept and cleaned the store—but that clearly wasn’t enough to tip the balance. Then I stumbled on a real opportunity to make amends. Sitting in the sink of the kitchenette was the filthiest frying pan in recorded culinary history. The pan wasn’t just stained; it was pitch black. Gunk and gook had been overheated and chemically bonded into an impenetrable layer that now covered the entire inner surface. Here was my chance to redeem myself. Restore this pan to its original shine, and surely I’d be forgiven for the Kratz disaster.

I grabbed a box of steel wool pads and feverishly scrubbed the pan until my fingers bled. Not to be denied, I donned rubber gloves and scrubbed until I finally uncovered a one-inch patch of shiny steel. Then, for six hours (between customers) I scrubbed the pan until the entire thing looked like it had just come out of its original box.

When grandpa returned from his errands I couldn’t wait to show him his good-as-new frying pan. He took one look at the shining pan, smiled broadly, and gave me a hug. “How did you get off all the black stuff?” He asked. I answered by pointing at a stack of used steel wool pads. Then Grandpa hugged me again.

Time passed, I went off to college, Mom and Dad moved to Phoenix, Grandpa passed away, and I hadn’t seen the frying pan for years until one day, I spotted it in Mom’s pantry. She saw me looking at the pan and came over and gave me a hug.

“I kept the pan as a keepsake,” she said.

“Of what?” I asked.

“Of love,” she explained.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.

“The week before you cleaned this pan,” Mom explained, “I had given it to your grandpa as a gift. It was a new invention called a “non-stick” pan because it was covered with a special substance called Teflon that stuck to nothing. That’s what you scrubbed off the frying pan that day. Teflon, not gunk.”

“No!” I responded.

“Yes,” Mom explained. “Grandpa was so touched by the enormous effort you put in to redeem yourself that he wouldn’t let me tell you that you had ruined his brand new frying pan. Your intentions were pure and that’s all that mattered to him. He understood the importance of intent, so he honored your good intentions by not saying a word about the frying pan fiasco to another living soul.”

“Really?” I exclaimed. “I kept the pan,” Mom continued, “as a shiny reminder of his love for you.”

“And my love for him,” I added.

The pan itself had no real value. In fact, it’s actually been ruined past its value. But the intent behind my cleaning it, and the intent behind Grandpa’s keeping it have made it priceless to me.

Influencer QA

How to Influence High Employee Turnover

Dear David,

I work as a director for a center that serves children with special needs. We are part of the Department of Pediatrics of a public university/hospital system. I have been the director for two years now and have an issue I am not sure how to solve. We work for a public institution, so the salaries for the caregivers who work in the classrooms are barely above minimum wage and not competitive locally. Because of this, our center is a revolving door for caregivers who are a critical part of our team. I am unable to raise the salary, so how do I keep employees, find new employees on a regular basis, and keep up the morale of the center and myself? I feel so discouraged most of the time because it’s an issue I can’t control, nor will it change in all likelihood. I am seriously considering leaving.

Best Regards,
Turnover Troubles

Dear Turnover Troubles,

Many leaders find themselves in your position. They struggle with turnover within their essential, but low-paying positions. I’ve worked with many of these leaders, so—while my advice won’t be especially welcome, it is truly battle-tested.

I think you need to re-set your expectations of what’s possible. You may not be able to ever “solve” your retention problem. The turnover numbers within your group may always be higher than ideal. However, there is a worse problem than actual turnover: It’s what we call “spiritual turnover.” Spiritual turnover happens when people stop being engaged, involved, motivated, or psychologically present at work. Their bodies may keep walking the halls, but their souls have left the building.

These organizational zombies are far more costly than actual physical turnover. They prevent your team from achieving its mission, and create safety and customer-experience problems as well. I think your goal should be to keep your employees as engaged and positive as possible—even when you know that many of them will only be with you until they find a better-paying job.

Gather Information: Begin by gathering information from two groups: a.) Long-term employees who you value and respect, and b.) Past employees who have been gone for at least three months.

Ask the long-term employees about their motivations for staying. Find out what is working for them. Is it pride in their work? Friendships with other team members? The impact they have on the people they serve? Work to build on these strengths.

Ask the past employees about why they left, what they liked/disliked about the job, and what they are doing now. One of your goals will be to reduce unappealing elements of the job. But, just as important, look for patterns in their career steps. For example, are your employees “graduating” to a better-paying job within healthcare? Within your same hospital? Are they going back to school? Are they really getting better-paying jobs, or are they stuck?

Connect to Values: Employee engagement requires a strong connection to at least one of the following four values:

  • Development: Some find meaning in the growth the job offers—in the way it prepares them for the next step in their career.
  • Job: Some find meaning in the tasks or the craft of the job. They identify with the profession.
  • Customers: Some find meaning in helping the people they serve—in your case the children and their families.
  • Team: Some find meaning in being a valued member of a winning team—in close friendships and being counted on by others.

I’ll suggest a few actions you can take in each of these areas.

Development: I hope your past employees have moved on to better jobs—and that they see their time with you as having helped their careers. One approach you might take is to turn your team into a world-class farm team for your hospital (or for professional schools). Make sure your employees get the training, experience, and coaching that will help them be most valuable to other departments. Create opportunities for employees to showcase their skills and to learn more about opportunities they can strive for. Your employees will value their time with you, because they see what you are doing for their careers. Employees will want to join your team, because they know it’s a great way to enter into a career in healthcare.

Job: My experience is that teachers take a lot of pride in their profession—and are also quick to point out obstacles that prevent them from practicing their profession. Often the best way to tap in to this source of motivation is by removing distractions and disruptions so that your employees can focus on what they do best. In addition, set high professional standards, and involve the whole team in holding each other accountable for achieving them. It’s hard to take pride in your work, if the standard isn’t high.

Customers: My guess is that most, if not all, of your employees take pride in the impact they have on the children and families they serve. Build on this pride by making these connections more visible, more personal, and more frequent. Find ways to track the impact your employees are having, and share and celebrate this impact. Create face time between your employees and children’s families.

Team: Make sure your employees feel like a valuable part of your team. Find ways to have them work with partners or in small groups. Create opportunities for them to get to know each other—and discover similar interests beyond work. Make sure each person knows that others on the team are counting on them, and value their contributions.

I hope these suggestions will help. Again, I think employee engagement is a better measure than turnover for leaders in your position.

Best of Luck,
David