C-Suite Advisory

Why Is Top Talent Leaving Your Company? Five Strategies to Stop Negative Attrition

Business Meeting

I quit.
Two dreaded words no leader wants to hear.

Companies today are facing a plethora of challenges. While companies still feel the pain of the pandemic, many also face stiff headwinds from economic turbulence. Additional belt-tightening following the stress of the past two years promises difficult times ahead.

While many companies are throwing their hands up in wonder, employees are doing the same. Today, employees are re-evaluating what is important. Workplace culture and conditions are high on the top of the list. But it is not just the employees who are finding themselves at crossroads. Recent studies indicate leaders are also considering resigning at an alarming rate.

What’s worse? Organizations are losing top talent while retaining those less productive (negative attrition). These talented and productive employees are organizations’ lifeline, and their loss leaves a void difficult to fill. Efficiency, knowledge, energy, and attitude are all affected when highly skilled employees resign. 

With all of the emerging anti-work trends, including the great resignation, quiet quitting, quiet firing, and more, all is not lost. It is during times of crisis that skilled, effective leadership becomes essential. Skillful leadership extends beyond executive leaders. Middle management leadership is even more impactful because of the number of employees they influence.

With a firm grasp of the challenge as it exists today, let’s turn our attention to solutions. 

While organizations may view leaders and employees as separate and distinct, the strategies for re-energizing both groups are surprisingly similar. 

Here are five strategies organizations can use to lessen damaging negative attrition by leaders and staff.

  1. Socratic Questioning
    Leaders are accustomed to showing up and providing solutions. Most leaders will immediately begin to formulate the fix when presented with a challenge. There is a benefit to the company and the team when leaders shift to a culture of asking questions.

    We collect mounds of data. Yet, not all of it is useful. The Greek philosopher Socrates aimed to solve this by asking a series of questions. Socratic questions are open-ended questions focused on eliciting information and reflection. When applied to the workplace, it creates a shared dialogue between leaders and employees. The Socratic method assumes both are responsible for pushing the dialogue forward through questioning, and in the process, each participates and contributes to the outcome.

    Socratic questioning can reach a level of depth unlikely with other methods, such as standard surveys. It goes beyond asking the right question to asking a series of questions that will educate, enlighten, and inspire. The key characteristics of Socratic questions are concise, directed, focused, open and neutral questions.

    The art of using Socratic questions includes the foundation of a shared dialog. This engaged discussion does not assume that one side has the answers. Additionally, it does not frame the discussion to suggest there is a right or preferred answer. This is a discussion and not an inquisition. Coaching leaders on effective questioning can be transformational. Yet, like any skill, it requires practice, and practice takes time.

  2. Collaborative Solutions
    Years ago, I learned an important lesson as a young healthcare leader. We had a problem. Someone was eating lunches brought from home by other team members. We couldn’t believe it. A few of us put our heads together and devised a solution. While it was a solution, the team did not receive it well. Why? It wasn’t collaborative. We did not involve the team in co-designing the solution.

    In his book, Collaborative Path, Patrick Aylward shared this equation:

    Collaboration = Better Solutions + Stronger Relationships.

    As leaders, everything we do eventually goes back to communication and relationships. When we commit to collaborative solutions, the result is positive for everyone involved.

    The information you’ll uncover with Socratic questioning is the perfect segway into developing solutions together. There is, however, a difference between collaboration and cooperation. I heard this message clearly when Patrick Aylward, the author mentioned above, appeared as a guest on The Coffee with Rhonda Show. He went on to explain the difference between cooperation and collaboration.

    Although not as artfully as he stated, he described it as something like this. In cooperation, both parties come to the table with a goal. Each party may have different goals based on their interests, and they proceed to engage with their interest in mind. When this happens, one often tries to convince the other to see things from their viewpoint. With collaboration, each party is focused on the same goal. They set their personal interests aside, and both come to the table with open hearts and minds to develop the solution together.

    I often see cooperation in solutioning but very little collaboration. When you bring everyone to the table without preconceived solutions, there is space to innovate and consider the what if’s that emerge from stimulated and spontaneous discussion.

  3. Workload Adjustments
    “Just because you’ve always done it doesn’t mean that is how it should be done.” This is a challenge I explore with leaders struggling to break away from the current processes that have brought them to their current level of success. Yet, “what got you here, won’t get you there” is an apt quote in this situation.

    Times have changed and those who are slow to pivot place themselves and their companies in a difficult position. Employees expect competent leaders who have empathy and understand when workload adjustments are needed. Most leaders do. Yet, many leaders feel constrained and unable to make changes that will have a lasting impact.

    This won’t cut it in today’s rapidly changing environment. By its very nature, “organizations” imply systems, structures, and processes, in other words, organization. These systems create a sense of safety that, if not carefully managed, can lead to the stagnation every company wants to prevent.

    In the face of short staffing, extended openings, disengaged employees, and budget challenges, the message of “we’re all going to have to do more” may trigger an unwanted exodus. If your people do not feel they can do their best work and achieve a sense of accomplishment within a reasonable workday, they are not likely to stick around. Great leaders are visionaries. They move beyond getting things done to doing things well.

    Don’t simply ask your teams to do more. Instead, adjust workloads so that people want to remain on your team. As recent studies have shown, today employees are re-imagining what is important. How, when and under what conditions they work are an important part of the equation.

  4. Honoring Boundaries
    Before the pandemic, many workplace cultures suffered a crisis of boundaries. With passionate leaders and staff eager to please, companies have used this enthusiasm to their advantage.

    In 2018, according to a study conducted by the US Travel Association, more than 55% of Americans did not use all of their PTO (paid time off). The study says that despite earning more time off, employees used a lower share of that time off.

    Additionally, being “connected” often means the lines between work and home are blurred regularly. Leaders and employees work on the weekends even when they are in 9-5 Monday – Friday jobs. According to a Forbes article in 2017, “Americans have gone from working for the weekend to working on the weekend.” This is based on research from Enterprise Rent-A-Car of 1000 Americans. The results showed that approximately 70% worked at least one weekend a month, with 63% saying their employer expected them to put in time on an average Saturday and Sunday.

    One additional factor of blurred boundaries is leaders sending texts and emails after hours and on weekends. While on many occasions those leaders may not expect an immediate reply, the employee receiving the message often feels obligated to reply.

    All of this was a factor before the pandemic, which accelerated the rate of remote work. The result was employees unsure of how and when to disconnect, given this new landscape. Employers, uncertain of how to provide guidance, allowed the working conditions to organically evolving instead of setting clear intentions and expectations to help create a culture that honored the boundaries and wellbeing of every team member.

    Instead of allowing the culture to be set by each leader, organizations can become much more explicit about boundaries and the commitment to workplace wellbeing.

  5. Growth Culture
    I’ve mentioned the rapidly changing workplace several times in this article. I would be remiss if I did not mention the connection between leadership skills, culture, and results. These three are inextricably linked and directly connected to your organization’s bottom line.

    We hire good people. We promote good people. Then, we give them job descriptions, set expectations, and turn them loose to perform. These good people get so busy with their day-to-day tasks that growing becomes an afterthought.

    Only 7% of organizations believe they have best-in-class leadership development processes. Additionally, only 7% of senior managers think their companies develop effective leaders.

Leaders today are facing unprecedented conditions they have not seen before. While doing their best, we should not assume that all of these good people are also good leaders, particularly under these conditions. Organizations that embrace leadership development as a core expectation have the advantage. 

Every company should have a set of systems and processes that help leaders continue to expand their awareness and understanding. Doing so allows leaders to elevate and innovate on behalf of the company continually. These leaders have happier, more engaged staff and high retention rates. Additionally, these are more satisfied leaders because they understand that leadership development is an investment in the organization, but it is also an investment in their professional growth. 

Recent studies show that today, employees expect training and development. 70% of employees would be somewhat likely to leave their current job to work for an organization that invests in employee development and learning. Additionally, the study found that 1 in 3 believes their company training is outdated.

Negative attrition is a plague affecting organizations globally. Why? Because talented employees with options expect their companies to do better. They have choices and are willing to explore the unknown and take their chances in the market when they believe it is in their best interest to do so. 

Companies are not powerless in these equations. While negative attrition is a complex challenge, taking a measured and thoughtful approach can position your company to reduce the loss of these talented members of the team. The time to act is now. The road to success goes through your leaders, who cannot perform at the level necessary without ongoing, effective training and development that update and strengthen the skills necessary for today’s workforce.


Written by Rhonda Y. Williams.
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Rhonda Y. Williams
Rhonda Y. Williams is an author, coach, emotional intelligence strategist, and international speaker. Her past life includes executive roles such as Chief Nursing Officer & Hospital CEO. After a pair of dueling life crises, Rhonda decided to STOP THE MADNESS! Rhonda is on a mission to assist organizations and leaders in the pursuit of leadership excellence through mastery of self and unbridled enthusiasm for learning. She is the CEO of Dream Life Leadership Academy, LLC and the founder of Leadership Above the Grind Training and Development Academy. Rhonda is a 4x author and the host of The Coffee with Rhonda Show.


Rhonda Y. Williams is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn.