Retain Employees


“Employees don’t leave their company, they leave their direct superiors,” said the motivation expert, Reinhard Sprenger. Even people who don’t exclusively subscribe to this sentiment will likely be open to discussing the influence of the direct supervisor on his staff in individual cases. Usually, most people will at least agree that it is not just “filthy lucre” that decides the long-term fate of the employee in the company. As a direct supervisor, you can play a key role in the retention of your employees.

It is almost a truism that the extent to which employees fulfil their potential and demonstrate their support to their employer depends on how satisfied and well cared-for they feel. The higher the perceived job satisfaction, the higher the attachment to and motivation for the company.

The individual criteria for delivering job satisfaction differ from employee to employee. However, according to Marshall Rosenberg, the inventor of the non-violent communication, one thing generally applies: When people’s needs are met, positive, pleasant feelings are the result.

When needs are not met, the results are usually difficult, unpleasant feelings. The boss informs me of his meeting with an important business partner. I listen carefully, feel happy inside and my ego is boosted. My needs for flow of information (safety) and recognition are fulfilled.

If the most important needs of employees are recognized and taken into account, then invariably positive feelings toward their work and their employer arise. According to a Gallup study, employees with distinct job satisfaction are emotionally connected to their company and actively involve themselves; for this reason, they work longer, do more, deliver more ideas, have a lower rate of absence and recommend your company to their circle of friends and acquaintances.

Not because they were obligated to do so, but because oftentimes they can’t avoid it because of their inner satisfaction and motivation. But what are the central needs of employees?

The relevant literature offers numerous models for this. At this point, I would like to introduce my subjective selection of the six key needs of employees in the workplace: I’ve incorporated these aspects from the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, from the six human needs according to Anthony Robbins, and my own additions.

Safety First

The first need is the existential need for safety, rooted deeply in our primal nature. Naturally – and that’s quite obvious – safety primarily refers to material safety. As Bert Brecht so aptly said: “Food comes first, and then comes ethics.” Namely, all measures that are suitable to guarantee and secure the material supply.

The open-ended employment contract is a prime example that is able to cover precisely this existential condition of need and also to stabilize. Safety does not only refer to the material aspect. Reliability is safety on the level of the employee relationship, in that employees can rely on the statements his boss makes. Especially in current times, in which it is becoming less possible to guarantee safety by means of external structures, this need can, for example, be satisfied through a stable work relationship.

Safety also refers to fairness. Initially, employees know these values, rules, and principles of cooperation in theory, possibly from the homepage of the company. If they then experience that these also entirely apply in the complicated and hectic everyday work life, then it provides orientation for them. And orientation strengthens the feeling of safety.

Another aspect of safety is clarity. Clarity in cooperation, in the structures (responsibilities, processes) and especially in communication (speaking with each other instead of about each other, and really saying what one means). If we communicate clearly, then everyone knows where we stand with each other. Then we are sure of each other. The link between surety and the word “safety” is obvious.

Sense of Significance

Every human being also has the need for significance. Significance in the form of recognition for what you are capable of and your performance, and appreciation as a human being; to simply be welcome and accepted the way you are.

Recognition is an exciting phenomenon where a small cause can have a large effect. One can defend against criticism, but one cannot defend against recognition, precisely because it is such a central desire of ours! As a leader, this doesn’t mean that you should focus appreciatively on an employee’s every good performance, but rather a simple “thanks for your efforts!” given at the right time to the right person will pay dividends on the journey to having satisfied employees.

Significance is particularly well realized in the area of staff development. Even a few, regular development discussions with employees in connection with any form of corporate “career development” and “talent management” signal to the employees that s/he is important to the company. It could translate into: “We have plans for you.”

Naturally, this also is a challenge to carefully, yet clearly show our own assessment of the employees. What potential do I, as an entrepreneur, see in my employee? After all, the goal is to attract and retain only those colleagues, who (for whatever reasons) are valuable to the company.

But what specifically do I offer my “talent”, my “star”, the “high potential” or “high performer” with regard to his/her need for significance? What status, position, function or authorization is s/he eligible here? A central management task of HR and employers in relation to internal staff development is to design and create attractive and binding offers here.

Solidarity in Crisis

Solidarity grows out of regular contact and communication. Including colleagues in everyday life, recurring communication, meetings (formal as well as informal), and providing the staff with information without being asked are all appropriate measures for promoting a climate of solidarity.

Biz-Employee2Feeling associated and feeling like a part of the whole are ancient human requirements which, if satisfied, become a source of strong motivation. In addition, this can positively influence the feeling of connectedness in especially difficult phases in the company (during conflicts in the team). Usually, not until after the current ‘crisis’ and only if you, as a boss, deal with them constructively.

A true catalyst for the emergence of solidarity is to have dealt with crises together. Just think of the closeness and in-depth collaboration, which can be observed between two adversaries after resolved conflicts. Thus, these types of stressful situations always offer a great opportunity for the development of solidarity. In other words: it is all about making compost from manure!

Breaking Monotony

We all long for safe and stable conditions. But as soon as we find ourselves in them, we are also quick to get tired of everyday routines. Employees often lose their energy and determination. The need for variety awakens.

Here, you need to be creative and pro-active. For example it is useful to provide variety in a role by qualifying staff to perform various tasks and activities. This allows you to use them in many ways, and it creates variety for the employees and helps you attain a more flexible use of staff.

Alternatively, integrating employees in projects, as well as taking them along to trade fairs, are some of the many such opportunities to provide variety. Surprises have a particularly a strong effect in this regard – although you should limit yourself to positive surprises here!

Personal Growth

The need for variety goes hand in hand with the desire for further development. Some speak of “lifelong learning”, others call it the “school of life” and brain researchers confirm that our brain cannot do without constantly learning. For one, there’s the external need to constantly change yourself (for example, adaptation in the context of change processes), but there is also the inner urge for personal growth and development.

As discussed with regard to the “need for significance”, it is of vital importance for an employer to provide medium-term prospects and further development to an employee, despite any uncertainties or limited resources.

In this context, it is essential to act honourably as an employer and not to fall back on phrases such as “We must first wait and see how things develop.” If small steps are all that is possible, then that’s just how it is. But make sure you define and agree upon these “baby steps”.

Functional Autonomy

Especially in hierarchically organised working environments, special importance delves on the need for autonomy or self-determination against the background of experienced heteronomy. In empirical studies on workplace satisfaction, a change in values has become visible over the past few years: where previously material incentives (such as a company car) strongly influenced employee satisfaction, nowadays more intangible aspects (such as flexible working hours and more room for self-realisation) have a more motivating effect on employees.

The guiding question for you in this context can be formulated as follows: How can I provide my employees maximum freedom while ensuring that excellent operational results are achieved? Usually the answer to this question is found by a joint identification and definition of the areas in which employees have room for self-expression, where rigid requirements and constraints exist.

For you, as a supervisor/ manager/ owner, it is now important to find out which of your employee’s needs you want to bind your company to. Start by ensuring that this need is met. Sometimes, it is not easy for people to identify their needs, let alone express them.

We can exercise better objectivity in identifying employees’ needs by observing their behaviour and their communication, and then asking ourselves what need does this employee likely to have in his/her current situation. Why does s/he want that and why is s/he concerned about it?

Even if these thoughts are initially hypothetical, they are still useful, because our empathetic ability is sharpened and honed as a result.

As a second step, it is important to talk to the employee about his/her wishes and goals. Ask the employee what type of work is s/he looking for and what type of future does s/he visualise for himself/ herself. You may understand the employee’s suspected needs, for example by asking: “I have the impression that ‘X’ is important to you. Do you agree?” or “What is it about ‘X’ that is particularly important to you?”

It is essential that the ideas and suggestions you are presenting match up with the aims and aspirations of the employee. Act according to the phrase: “The fish must like the bait, not the fisherman.”


– Christoph Zill


Christoph-ZillThe writer is a coach for executives, a consultant and a conflict expert.

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