Surviving Employee Turnover: Lessons From Sports and Military Leaders

Organizations that struggle in the face of constant employee turnover can learn some valuable lessons from the military and professional sports teams; these two organizations have always been challenged to maximize performance in a high turnover environment. Let’s see what the experts have to say.

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Football team working towards success

Although your company may be working hard to improve staff retention, sometimes employees leave at inopportune times. So how do you keep your business moving forward when continually faced with employee turnover? Time to ask the experts.

Organizations that struggle in the face of constant employee turnover can learn some valuable lessons from the military and professional sports teams– two organizations that have learned to maximize performance in a high turnover environment.

“Every military leader must deal with constant turnover while maintaining high-level field performance,” says customer loyalty speaker and Vietnam War veteran, Chip Bell.

Here are a few lessons from sports and military organizations to help you maximize performance while dealing with turnover.

#1. Run Superior Training Programs

Whether you call it training camp, basic training, company boot camp, or onboarding, a robust and well-organized welcome program gets new employees up-to-speed quickly. Therefore, they can start contributing to your organization as soon as possible.

“Soldiers are taught in basic training to be mission-focused,” says Bell. “As a soldier, you know you’re interchangeable with any other soldier of your specialty.” Soldiers are constantly rotated to new assignments, frequently separated as their tour ends, or are “tragically removed” from the line of duty.

“Smart military leaders value superior orientation programs aimed at rapid acclimation much like a player joining a game from the bench,” he says.

Take a look at the content of your onboarding and training programs to ensure they include basic training on your company software programs, education on position and company-specific topics, and any industry-specific compliance subjects.
Related: Zenefits Hiring & Onboarding

#2. Build Trust

Quickly building trust between leaders, managers, and team members is crucial to performing well in a high-turnover environment.

In the Oxford Handbook of Military Psychology, Paul Lester describes the basics of a concept known as “swift trust”, where trust is based on transparency and clearly visible levels of status. For example, in the military, uniforms include highly visible badges, medals, or stripes as a means to quickly share an individual’s job-related experience. In the world of sports, teams and dynamics are always changing and this type of background information quickly and easily provides an understanding between the new teammates and the rest of the team.

In the business world, it takes more time to build trust – but in a high-turnover environment, it’s best to reduce that time as much as possible.

Another way to build trust quickly is to empower new employees. Avoid micromanaging, and be intentional about establishing an autonomous workplace. In this Psychology Today article by Dr. Michael D. Matthews discusses the Individual-Relationship-Organization-Context (IROC) model developed by retired Army Colonel Patrick Sweeney, which emphasizes trust across ranks. “Successful organizations and their leaders demonstrate genuine concern and respect for others, maintain clear and open communication across the organization, and are willing to empower and trust others,” Matthews writes.

Related: Harmful Micromanagement: How to Switch to an Autonomous Workplace

#3. Crash Course In Company Culture

Like close-knit families, businesses often develop their own culture, complete with traditions, buzzwords, and unwritten rules. Acclimatize new employees quickly and get them “up-to-speed” on your company culture to boost performance. This trick has been used in the military for years as part of basic training, says Bell, who was an infantry unit commander with the 82nd Airborne, and taught guerrilla tactics at the U.S. Army Infantry School.

“Included were not just the details of the mission, but also the language, codes, signals, and norms specific to a unit,” he recalls.

As Bell explains, soldiers new to a unit were assigned to a buddy of the same rank in the same unit. “The buddy’s job was to be the new soldier’s mentor and friend,” says Bell. “Leaders were taught to meet with a newly assigned soldier at the end of day one, day two, and week one to ensure proper assimilation.”

Bell says company commanders regularly asked platoon leaders how the new soldier was doing, and a platoon leader would ask the same of his or her squad leaders.

“Neglect of new soldiers was considered neglect of duty since the chain of teamwork was only as strong as its weakest link,” says Bell.

#4. Promote Potential, Not Necessarily Performance

Your management team is a key ingredient in not only reducing turnover but also in keeping the business on track when old workers leave and new ones begin. Dr. Kim Turnage is a leadership consultant and co-author of the book Managing to Make a Difference. She says businesses can strengthen management by altering the criteria they use to choose managers. “Too many times, that promotion goes to top individual performers,” Turnage says. “But the best performers are not necessarily the best managers.”

Professional football provides a great example of this. According to Turnage, “Among NFL head coaches in 2016, only one-third of them of them played professional football — and ‘professional football’ includes [the Canadian Football League] CFL and Arena League.” In other words, the best coaches may not have been the best players— the two roles necessitate radically different skill sets.

Turnage encourages business leaders to look beyond performance to spot the potential for coaching, mentoring and leadership. “Hire and promote people with that kind of potential – even if they’re not your top individual performers,” she says.<//p>

Promoting individuals with leadership potential has two strong benefits for companies. First, it retains a good employee, reducing future turnover at the management level. Second, it provides a reliable coach to help employees in higher-turnover positions succeed in their new roles faster.

#5. Create and Share Definitive Guiding Principles

In the military and sports worlds, organizations find ways to excel despite unusually high turnover rates. Likewise, companies that want to thrive must find ways to grow in the face of constant change. A strong framework and formal guiding principles help professional teams and military branches succeed– and they can help your company too.

Employees may come and go, but a framework should remain intact. As Matthews pointed out in his Psychology Today article, “high performing organizations maintain excellence despite personnel churn.”

This requires creating a definitive mission and vision statements, precise codes of conduct and clearly written expectations of character in the workplace. It also means promptly rewarding team members when they meet or exceed the stated expectations.

Luckily, in this way, businesses don’t necessarily have to resemble military and sports teams, where turnover and trades are simply part of the job. Your employees can choose to stick around. So when you work through these lessons to boost performance, don’t be surprised if your turnover issue takes care of itself!

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