Source: Art Markman/ HBR.org
A star employee’s departure can cause their team members to question their own futures at the company and look elsewhere. Leaders can take a few steps to keep their employees motivated and prevent a stampede to the exits. Ask questions of both the departing employee and the rest of your team, then listen attentively and acknowledge their concerns. Focus on goals and reassure your team that they’re still important and achievable, and provide them with educational opportunities to show that you care about their long-term effectiveness.
Movement of talented employees across firms is inevitable, but if you’re in a leadership role, there are things you can do when a star employee leaves to prevent their departure from becoming a stampede to the exits.
Ask Questions, Then Listen
Perhaps the most important thing you can do when someone leaves is to listen — carefully. Start by conducting an exit interview with the person departing to find out what factors led to their decision. Probe a little to understand any concerns — even if someone is leaving to take on a great opportunity at another firm, there may still be some dissatisfaction lurking in the wings that’s leading other people on the team to cast a wandering eye at other jobs.
Then, take the pulse of the rest of your team. Meet with team members individually and talk to them about how they’re doing. Ask how they think the departure of their colleague will affect morale. If you picked up concerns from the exit interview, weave them into the discussions to find out if those concerns are widespread. Just the act of talking with people can reassure them that you care about how well the team is functioning.
Many organizations run regular engagement and trust surveys. If yours is one of them, consider doing a brief survey of the whole group to find out how they’re feeling about the organization and leadership. These “pulse” surveys can help you get a sense of your employees’ reactions to positive or negative milestones within the organization or even external issues that have gained societal prominence.
If these conversations and surveys do uncover significant concerns among team members, it’s important to engage them directly. Start by explicitly acknowledging the concerns so that employees recognize that you’re aware of the problem. Then, be transparent in your attempts to address the issues people have raised. Gathering information from employees will only increase long-term trust if they sense that you’re actually working to use that information constructively.
Focus on the Future
Happiness in the workplace is driven by several factors. Having great colleagues is one of them, so the loss of a valued teammate can disrupt the community. The sense that the team is accomplishing important things also informs employee satisfaction. People are often happiest when they see their work as a calling that adds up to something bigger than themselves. The departure of a stellar employee may influence this sense of calling among other team members for a couple of reasons.
First, people are more motivated to meet goals when they perceive them as important — and when they believe they can actually make progress toward them. When someone leaves, everyone else may feel like their ability to achieve significant goals will be hampered. If that’s the case, you need to reassure people that their goals are still achievable and commit to replacing those who have left if that’s crucial for success.
Second, a departure can lead to cognitive dissonance. When you hold contradictory beliefs in mind simultaneously, mental mechanisms work to make those beliefs more consistent with each other. A key employee’s decision to leave may be seen as a vote of no confidence in the organization’s core mission, which can lead other employees to question — and, ultimately, to devalue — that mission and consider other opportunities.
In team meetings and conversations, stay focused on future opportunities and the importance of the group’s goals. This reinforces the sense that the team’s work has broad importance and emphasizes the role of the existing team, rather than creating reminders of who’s missing.
Provide Development Opportunities
Another driver of workplace satisfaction is the belief that your job allows you to grow. Employees are generally happier when they feel like they receive training that enables them to do their jobs better, and one reason why there’s so much turnover in the modern workplace is that employees often feel that organizations don’t have their long-term interests at heart. Training and education programs are a great way to enhance trust because they demonstrate a clear desire to focus on employees’ long-term effectiveness and well-being. Management should redouble efforts to provide these opportunities to employees. In addition to the specific benefits a particular training may provide, investment in people’s future increases loyalty to the organization.
The departure of a star employee can cause their team members to question their own satisfaction — and futures — at the company. Managers who respond by being attentive and looking forward can help keep the rest of the team from jumping ship.