The art of retaining staff in difficult times

Written by: Martin Tucker is Managing Director at Faerfield and Emma Haddleton is Chief Executive Officer of Haddleton Knight Ltd.
Published on: 14 Sep 2023

There has been a lot written on this page about recruitment over the years but, given that many of the words come from recruitment consultants, I suspect less about retention. One of the characteristics of mature teams and organisations can be a good balance between recruitment and retention. Some colleagues retire, others seek pastures new, and some are promoted as part of a thought-through and, usually, well executed succession plan. 

But what happens when an organisation’s future becomes very uncertain? We have seen this across the sector for many years, particularly during periods of local government reorganisation where new authorities are created, and some are consigned to history.  More recently, the financial viability of some of our most important institutions is becoming a more common destabilising force.     

There are a number of tried and tested behaviours, tactics and techniques that have been advocated by leadership experts and validated by organisational psychologists through research.  Much of this recent research into the private sector looked at organisations that traded through the financial crisis of 2007-08 and the economic upheaval that followed.

Since then, the UK has started the process of decoupling from its major trading partner while the war in Ukraine has helped to push us suddenly into a world of higher inflation and higher interest rates. Coming up fast is new technology that has not only brought us social media, but to the point where artificial intelligence has the potential to change the very fabric of society.  

Many of us will have heard of a ‘VUCA’ world, one which is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. The United States Army War College was one of the first organisations to use the VUCA acronym, following the 11 September terrorist attacks in 2001, and it’s probably fair to say that those four words are still apt today. So how do we retain good people in this VUCA world and when our own organisation is faced with considerable change? 

The answer, it turns out, is to do the sort of things good leaders should be doing – but amplify it. Sound leadership traits and behaviours can get mangled in the maelstrom of change because leaders are focusing on the crisis, or the change immediately in front of them, to the detriment of the people who will follow them through it. Professor Nigel Nicholson of the London Business School has written some excellent words on this topic (some of which are paraphrased here), while in their report to Government – Engaging for Success – David MacLeod and Nita Clarke made the compelling case for superior employee engagement leading to higher levels of organisational performance.   

First, seek to understand the psychology of fear, threat and anxiety that sudden change can generate in people. Anticipating and understanding what people typically do and think in response to such feelings will be a helpful framing point. They might behave in ways you have not seen before.

Ask your people how they are feeling, listen carefully and acknowledge their reality.  Although the future is uncertain, people will want reassurance better times lie ahead and that is most likely achieved by staying close and working together. Try to steady emotions. 

Including people in decision making is one of the staples of good leadership, but in tough times, leaders can become tunnel visioned.  Don’t forget that including the right people in the right way can be a powerful source of motivation as well as sharing what might be the burden of having to make some tough calls. 

One of the most important things leaders can do is to offer hope.  Not wildly unrealistic, pie in the sky hope, but hope that is founded on pragmatism and authenticity. Leaders who speak about their own feelings, their vision and their passion help people connect to both them and to each other.

Communicate, communicate and communicate.  More than ever, people working through difficult times need to hear from their leaders in ways which make is personal to them.  So that means communicating in personal ways and not just sending emails.  It also means being a good role model to others and looking after yourself. People notice the small things. When you do send emails, for example, enable your email client to send them during the working day, even if you have written them at the extremities.  

Good leadership in the toughest times is, by definition, very difficult, but it can make a significant difference. People are more likely to stick around and work with leaders who continue to create a positive vision for the future, offer hope and exhibit the right values, behaviours and attitudes. 

Martin Tucker is Managing Director at Faerfield and Emma Haddleton is Chief Executive Officer of Haddleton Knight Ltd. Together they work with individuals and teams to help maximise performance.