The Managing Director of a small engineering firm came to me for help recently after experiencing staff retention issues. He had two key staff resign in the same week just days after he had won a large new client. Both staff members had accepted new jobs that were almost identical to their existing job title and paying the same salary. The first cited travel time to work as the issue that had caused him to look for another job and the second cited boredom with his work tasks.

Knowing the answers to the following three questions for these key employees could have avoided this scenario.

1)    What motivates you?

Most ineffective managers are considered ineffective not because they don’t know how to motivate people, but because they don’t know what motivates their people. This is an important distinction, and perhaps the biggest key to motivating others. For one person, receiving thanks and appreciation for a job well done could be absolutely critical for their motivation. Another person might be driven by finding meaning in their work and making a difference. People’s motivators can and do change depending on what is happening in the person’s life. For example, starting a family could change someone’s motivators from receiving recognition to wealth creation and/or work life balance. A milestone birthday approaching could suddenly make someone motivated to achieve a promotion. Be curious and find out what drives your people.

Once you know their personal motivation triggers, try as best you can to match their expectations with the work at hand. For example, if someone enjoys being innovative, give them more assignments involving creative work. When you tap into someone’s core drivers, you unleash their motivation on the job.

2)    What are your career goals?

One of the most respected annual HR studies (CEB’s Global Labour Market Survey) has found “inadequate career opportunities” to be the number one cause of employee turnover for the past seven years running. This demonstrates that many people are career oriented and seeking ways to reach their career goals. Once you have built up trust with your staff, ask them about their long and short-term goals. Here are five questions you can ask your people to explore their career goals:

1)      Have you ever thought about your career goals? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

2)      When you imagine your career and what you are doing in ten years’ time, what does that look like?

3)      Can you see yourself making progress towards your career goals here? If not, what would need to change?

4)      What work are you doing here that is most in line with your long-term goals?

5)      What do you see as the next step in your career?

If people were not expecting these questions, they may not be ready to answer straight away. Offer people the opportunity to use a career tool/s to help them identify their strengths and motivators. You can follow up at your next one-on-one and ask them if they’ve had any thoughts since your last conversation. If the person doesn’t want to discuss their career goals, don’t force the issue.

Some managers get so worried that they won’t be able to accommodate people’s goals that they decide not to ask the question. When a staff member resigns to pursue their career goals it then comes as a complete surprise. Of course, you won’t always be able to accommodate every person’s career goals. You can however talk to them about what is within your control, and most people will appreciate any efforts that you can make.

3)    How can I support you?

According to recent market research, this is the top question employees want to hear from their manager. It’s an easy question to ask, but the real value comes from the follow-through. Listen carefully to the answers from your staff, let them know what you can do, and be sure to follow through on any promises made.

In the case of the staff member who resigned from the small engineering firm because of travel time to work, he had recently started a family. With his newly found motivator being work-life balance, a flexible start and finish time to avoid peak hour traffic could have retained this staff member. In the case of the staff member who resigned due to boredom with work tasks, knowing the person’s career goals and providing opportunities to complete work tasks in line with these goals would have provided benefits to both the company and the individual.

The final word

The cost of unwanted turnover for companies is high and far-reaching when lost productivity, declines in customer service and loss of knowledge are considered in addition to recruitment and training costs of new hires. One study estimated the costs at 213 percent of annual salary for senior positions (CAP, 2012). Asking, knowing and acting on the answers to the above three questions can stop small business owners losing sleep and hard-earned profits.