The Great Resignation shows no signs of stopping. In February alone, 4.4 million Americans turned in badges or emptied out virtual desks in search of greener pastures.
It's a confusing moment for chief executives. Businesses in every industry are battling a problem with retention -- and they can't solve it with money alone. Though low pay was the chief reason workers cited for quitting, 28 percent of Great Resignation participants are leaving their posts without another gig lined up.
How do you make workers want to stay if you don't want to increase worker pay? Managers can start by playing down the Golden Rule ("treat others the way you want to be treated") and instead embracing the Platinum Rule ("treat others the way they want to be treated"). The question is, how can you know that?
Best-selling author Gary Chapman pointed out 30 years ago that people in romantic relationships have as many as five different "love languages," which refer to how they experience appreciation from their partner in ways that are personally meaningful to them. More recently, Chapman and Paul White have suggested that workplace relationships can also benefit from love languages. It is unsurprising that expressions of love language -- i.e., employees' preferred ways of being appreciated -- temporarily make employees feel and perform better at work. What's remarkable is that their effects can last for weeks, months, and even years.
Social psychologists use the concept of wise interventions -- events that induce people to think differently about themselves, others, and the workplace, and subsequently catalyze processes that build enduring change. There's growing research that these seemingly small events may have positive long-term effects.
Wise interventions can make a difference in the classroom. My research partners Jennie Kim and Caryn Block and I found that giving women MBA students an opportunity to engage in a 10-minute-long self-affirmation activity early in the program boosted their performance in quantitative courses for the entire first semester. The exercise had little to do with their academics -- instead, students were asked to rank their personal values, and write about which value was important to them and why. Through this wise intervention, the gap in performance between men and women in quantitative courses disappeared, whereas it persisted for those who did not experience the intervention.
On a practical level then, how can managers provide such expressions of love language in the workplace?
First, managers can start by delivering personally tailored feedback more often, which will help employees grow in their jobs. If they expect workers to stay engaged, managers can no longer wait for the one-size-fits-all annual review to offer guidance. Jinseok Chun, David DeCremer, and I recently found that employees are more empowered when they receive feedback that compares current performance with previous performance, rather than when performance is compared with that of co-workers. Alternatively, managers can also encourage quality time among those who value it highly, for example, by organizing group workout classes, company potlucks, or encouraging small rituals like grabbing a coffee after the morning meeting. Such team bonding activities can lead to a 16 percent increase in how meaningful employees perceive their work to be.
A genuine "Great work!" for a job well done only takes seconds, but it can mean the difference between leaving and staying for some employees. While it may feel intuitive, the next thing managers should do is start passing out more praise, especially to those for whom the receipt of praise is a love language. Recognizing good work and high-performing employees can set in motion a self-fulfilling loop in which employees feel more confident and perform better, which in turn further reinforces their sense of confidence, and so on. This may even help employees be resilient in the face of negative feedback that would otherwise send them on a downward spiral. Moreover, prioritizing praise can create a culture of compliments among co-workers. In other words, not only does receiving kudos boost morale but giving compliments to one another can further increase employee satisfaction.
Third, managers need to make generosity commonplace. Acts of service can be an impetus for enhanced teamwork and positive change in working relationships. Imagine an employee, who particularly covets the love language of acts of service, is swamped with competing deadlines, and receives a helping hand from a co-worker who offers to take a task off their plate. The employee will not only be more likely to empathize with co-workers juggling tall workloads in the future but may also feel inclined to return the favor or pay it forward when they have extra bandwidth, thereby setting in motion a virtuous interpersonal cycle between themselves and their colleagues.
Finally, expressions of workplace love language will land better when they are authentic. If they are judged to be gimmicky one-offs, do not be surprised if they fail to yield increased morale or, even worse, produce a negative backlash and further disillusion employees.
The Great Resignation has made it clear that it makes not only psychological but also economic sense for companies to do what they can to improve employee engagement. The costs of hiring replacements for those who leave can run six to nine months of an employee's salary. If the expression of love languages can enhance romantic relationships, it stands to reason that they can keep employees in love with their job as well.