3 Ways to Skyrocket Retention of Top Employees

High-performing employees are in demand. They have choices. They can choose where they work. They can also choose whether to leave or stay.

For organizations that value performance excellence, retention of top talent needs to be high on the priority list.


Why Employees Stay

Decades of research point to three psychological conditions that impact employee retention. To keep things simple, I call these Desire to Stay, Duty to Stay, and the Hostage Effect.1


Desire to Stay

Some employees love their jobs so much they have a deep desire to stay. They’re emotionally attached to and involved with the organization. They feel like they belong.2 They want to stay, not because they have no other choice, but rather because they love working for the organization and have a rock-solid bond with its people. This is a great way to retain employees because it motivates them to bring their best to work.


Duty to Stay

Other employees feel a moral obligation to remain with the organization.3 They have a sense of responsibility to the organization because of what the organization has done for them. In this type of commitment, the organization is benefiting from investing in its people.


The Hostage Effect

Finally, some employees believe they have no choice but to remain with the organization. They feel that the costs of leaving far outweigh the costs of staying.4 In their mind, they’re trapped. They’re hostages of the organization. They know they’re miserable and want to leave their jobs, but they see no viable way of escape.

Unfortunately, The Hostage Effect works, but it’s a terrible way to retain employees. It may keep warm bodies on the payroll, but they’re not fully engaged. Employees who feel trapped are not motivated to bring their best to work, and this is detrimental to performance. It has negative effects on the employee, customers, co-workers, and the organization.

If you want to promote performance excellence, focus your employee retention strategy on promoting Duty to Stay and Desire to Stay. This means intentionally investing in people and creating a great workplace where employees love what they do and the people they work with.


3 Ways to Dramatically Improve Employee Retention

The research of Stinglhamber et al. supported what decades of previous research have asserted: the best way to skyrocket employee retention is to level up the people skills of your organization’s leaders.

In particular, the researchers pointed to three critical drivers that leaders can leverage to increase employee retention significantly:

  1. Support,
  2. High-quality supervisor-employee relationships, and
  3. Job autonomy.5

So how can you activate these three drivers in your workplace?


#1 – Focus on Support

Focus on how you can support employees.

“Support is anything the employee reasonably needs to achieve strong performance.”6 Basic types of workplace support include tools, equipment, supplies, access to information, and training. On a deeper and more personal level, support may require referrals to mental health services, substance abuse interventions, child care assistance, and other vital resources.7

However, the most important form of support you can provide employees is strong supervisor-employee relationships.8


#2 – Promote Strong Supervisor-Employee Relationships

When supervisor-employee relationships are strong, employees trust their supervisors and are willing to be vulnerable enough to ask for the help they need.9 They know they will receive support and that the information they divulge will not be used against them. This underscores how crucial it is for managers and supervisors to be willing and able to build healthy and supportive working relationships with the people they lead.

Strong supervisor-employee relationships are founded on trust, effective communication, and empowerment.10

  • Trust – “Trust is the foundation for all healthy relationships, and the supervisor-employee relationship is no exception… Trust fosters strong teamwork, cooperation, information sharing, problem-solving, and conflict resolution. A high degree of workplace trust drives higher levels of employee diligence, productivity, and innovation.”11 Trust creates an energized workplace where employees are thriving and excited about the work they do, which leads to higher employee retention.
  • Effective Communication – “Effective communication fosters cooperative working relationships where you and the employee exchange information, resources, and support. Effective communication is frequent, high-quality, two-way, collaborative, and individualized.”12 Communication can be learned and improved with training, coaching, and practice. Consider using assessments, training, and other resources to determine your communication preferences as well as those of the people you lead and to adapt effectively to meet their needs and yours.
  • Empowerment – Empowerment gives “employees the power and authority to make decisions at their level, recognize and solve problems, and go above and beyond expectations.” Empowerment is the opposite of micromanagement and lets employees know you trust them.13 Empowerment doesn’t mean lack of monitoring. Keeping your eyes on the work employees do helps you ensure things are going in the right direction and to identify when your support is needed.


#3 – Give Autonomy

People need to feel control over their daily work. Hire the best people you can find, invest in their development, and trust them to get the job done. This requires trust, effective communication, and empowerment.


Strong Leadership is the Key

Strong leadership is a critical factor influencing the atmosphere of the workplace, organizational performance, and the retention of top-notch employees. Great employees want to work for great workplaces. They want environments where they’re supported, where they have a strong relationship with their direct supervisor, and where they’re given control over their daily work.

Strong leadership is the key to creating this type of environment. The best way for organizations to create a great workplace and improve employee retention is to invest in developing strong leaders at every level. This type of investment dramatically improves working relationships, performance, and retention of top performers.


Sylvia Melena is the Founder & CEO of Melena Consulting Group and the Author of Supportive Accountability: How to Inspire People and Improve Performance.


1, 2, 3, 4, 5 Stinglhamber, Florence, Géraldine Marique, Gaëtane Caesens, Donatienne Desmette, Isabelle Hansez, Dorothée Hanin, and Françoise Bertrand. “Employees’ Organizational Identification and Affective Organizational Commitment: An Integrative Approach.” PLoS ONE 10, no. 4 (2015): 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0123955. Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/   Note: The researchers refer to Desire to Say, Duty to Stay, and The Hostage Effect as Affective Commitment, Normative Commitment, and Continuance Commitment respectively.

6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 Melena, Sylvia. “The Art of Supportive Leadership.” Chap. 2 in Supportive Accountability: How to Inspire People and Improve Performance. La Mesa, CA: Melena Consulting Group, 2018. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07F6LMFWP