Chances are, you are way more familiar than you'd like with the phenomenon known as the Great Resignation. Well, I probably know it better than you.   

My business is to step into companies as an interim chief operating officer So, almost by definition, I join companies during transitions, always a precarious time for employee retention.  When I first engage, it's not uncommon to see retention in decline--even free fall--because management's approach to building team cohesion has gone stale.  My job is to get the operation back on track.

What I've learned is this: The most important technique you can use to reenergize teams and reduce the risk of losing employees is to ask open-ended questions to everyone on your team. And then listen--hard--to the responses.

Many leaders think that leading means knowing all the answers. In reality, it's about asking the right people the right questions. The first thing I do when I enter an organization is interview everyone on the team, from my direct reports down to the intern who joined two months ago. When I can, I also branch out to chat with folks from other departments, even if they don't report up to me. I ask open-ended questions like, "If you had a magic wand, what would you change?" or "If you were the CEO, what would you do?"

I used this technique at a technology startup when I was brought in as acting COO. The biggest complaint I got from employees was that they didn't know the vision of the company and how they fit into it. I worked with the CEO to change that, and we saw a huge increase in morale. At an industrials company where I was the interim vice president of operations, everyone on the team (and folks outside the team) told me the procurement team needed training, so I put in place weekly training sessions.

To find the meaning behind the answers I get, I triangulate:

  • Is everyone saying the same thing, or are there divides?
  • And if there are divides, where do they occur?
  • Among employee levels?
  • Departments?
  • Individuals?

If everyone in the organization is saying the same thing, like, "We don't know how what we do ties to the company's goal" or "We don't have enough people in procurement, and it's causing huge supply problems," then that's a pretty good indication that you need to focus there.

Sometimes lower-level employees are afraid to tell the truth to executives. So by listening to what is not being said, as well as what is, you can discern that. For example, if you asked, "What's your favorite part about working here?" and there is a long pause, or the employee gives a glib response about the cafeteria having a soda machine, you know you have a morale problem. Answers to open-ended questions around ambition (e.g., "How important is the manager title to you?") will give you a sense of how upwardly focused the employee is.

A frank discussion around their expectations for promotions can help you identify who may leave if they don't get a promotion, and who might be likely to take a recruiter's call. Questions like, "What do you do day to day?" can help determine if the employee is bored with rote tasks, if there is an opportunity to bring in technology to streamline workflows, or if there are clunky processes that need overhauling. Likewise, understanding if an employee is overworked, is getting the right direction, has the skills necessary to do the job, etc., will help give you some indication of who may be at the greatest flight risk.

The benefits of asking open-ended questions are twofold: First, they help identify leadership's blind spots. Secondly, they boost morale, because employees feel like their opinion is being taken into consideration. Many C-suite executives don't have the luxury to engage every day with lower levels in the organization, let alone ask questions like, "If you were in my shoes, what would you do?" So when that does happen, the employee feels respected and valued.

Asking open-ended questions and talking to each employee won't necessarily prevent an employee from leaving. But it can help you identify blind spots and ensure your employees feel respected and valued. So take a walk around the office today or schedule a few Zoom calls. You might be amazed at what you learn. And it could just bend the curve on your retention rate.