How to Lose Talented Employees in 90 Days or Less

I love seeing people thrive. Inversely, I lament when they fail for reasons beyond their control. When good, talented, employees leave too soon it begs the question: why? Why did they leave and what events ushered them out? Attrition of talented team members is arguably one of the biggest losses a business can face. When long-term team members leave, the loss of institutional knowledge can be devastating. Equally so, when new hires leave too soon, the cost to reputation and the remaining team can have lasting effects. The month-by-month recount that follows is a product of my experiences throughout my career, from the many weird and unusual jobs I’ve had. Read on.

Month 1: Hire the right person for the wrong job

It’s the feeling of drowning. Being so overwhelmed that you question your decision to accept the position. You wonder if it’s always going to feel like this or if it will get better. And just when you feel like you’re getting a grip, curve ball. You’re not clear on what is expected of you, but you know you’re not meeting them. You try to ask for help from colleagues but they can’t fix the fact you’re unmatched for the role and you know it. Have you ever felt like this? Like you were thrown into the deep end of the pool and told to swim? I’ve seen this scenario play out countless times. It starts with cheer and excitement and ends with yelling, crying in the bathroom, anxiety, and then departure. Fuelling the process of hiring the right person for the wrong job is the sentiment, “if they’ve done X, they should be able to do Y”. Sure, maybe. Maybe not. If this gamble pays off, great. If not, it’s incredibly demoralizing for the employee that departs and the team they leave.

Month 2: Invalidate their perspective or experience

I don’t know about you, but being from an academic world has meant I’ve faced many challenges to what I think and know. For me it’s always been a productive challenge to be able to take a perspective and use it to “win hearts and minds”, as it were. I’m used to having my perspective challenged. But what happens when you’re not challenged, merely ignored? Or, silence is the response to ideas, topped off with a dismissal that says, “We’ve already thought of that, so don’t bother”. Rather than challenge, there is a quiet that speaks volumes about the the value of being tenacious and offering ideas.

With a diversity of ideas, opinions, and beliefs in any organization it is reasonable that not every idea is good, valid, or constructive. Yet, when you hear that, despite your expertise, you are the “token” voice only there to validate what’s already been decided and strategized, it’s hard to swallow.

Month 3: Death by a thousand cuts

It’s all the little things, literally. I bet we’ve all had the experience of a co-worker that offers a complement that is followed by a put-down. There’s a thorn that digs in and sticks, leaving you wondering if you heard what you thought you heard–better known as gaslighting. Or, maybe it’s not a complement, maybe it’s unwarranted criticism or blatant gossip and whispering. After a while, as you can guess, the cuts become too much. Many publications, and a forthcoming blog here, talk about this behaviour as “toxic”. The overall effect on business life is profound when good people leave, or worse, stay, but at a cost to their own well-being.

In the end, death by a thousand cuts, like gaslighting, is about power. The power to manipulate, control, enact harm, or wear someone down.

Caveat: When I started writing this I had no idea that “death by a thousand cuts” referred to a Chinese torture method called Lingchi. This adds a uniquely grotesque aspect to this practice in business life.

It’s not hard to lose talented employees when they are set up to fail, not listened to or cultivated, and are subject to a “thousand cuts”. Of course, as you can imagine, the opposite of this 3-month journey is the perfect recipe for cultivating an incredible team member and keeping them engaged longer than 3-months!

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