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The roots of retention: The Big BIF

Bradley Harris
NeuroSense Consulting

Over the past several months, a theme regularly pops up during conversations with clients, business acquaintances, and Human Resources colleagues. They’re worried about employee turnover. As northern Nevada gains a reputation as a great place to build, or move a business, economists and workforce development experts are telling us there aren’t going to be enough workers to go around.

Business owners and managers often tell me their employees leave for higher pay, but there’s lots of solid research that shows it’s just not the key driver behind turnover. The best research on turnover comes from the Gallup Organization. Gallup has asked over 7 million employees what they think of their jobs and the companies for which they work.

Gallup found something interesting about money — satisfaction with pay isn’t predictive of productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction, or turnover. Why do we hear so much about people leaving for pay? It’s a safe reason to give for leaving – it doesn’t burn any bridges.

Gallup uses a 12-question employee survey to evaluate engagement. By drilling down into their published research, I’ve found the key reasons people stay with a company instead of leaving are Belonging, Importance, and Fairness. Let’s call them The Big BIF, three elements that work like glue to keep employees from leaving an organization.

To find evidence for The Big BIF, we need only look into our own brains. These three needs are evolutionary adaptations that increased our ancestors’ chances of survival.

Belonging

Belonging is an adaptation that mammals developed to protect their bigger-brained young. Mammals have a neo-cortex, which allows for better learning, memory, and habit formation. The neocortex adds to the size of the brain. Bigger brains mean mammal babies have to be born earlier so the babies’ heads can pass through the birth canal. Reptiles are born ready to live on their own, but mammals are more or less helpless at birth. Group living gave mammal babies a better chance of survival because there are more adults around to watch out for predators and to help with child rearing.

Group living offers a big survival advantage, but only if an individual stays with the group. If an individual wanders off, it’s easy pickings for predators. Animals that developed a need for being with the group were more likely to survive.

Our need for belonging is driven by oxytocin, a powerful neurochemical that makes us fall in love, take good care of our children, and root for the same NFL team as our friends. Oxytocin reduces the effect of cortisol, the stress hormone, and generally contributes to sociability, trust, and trustworthiness. Employers who don’t encourage a feeling of community at work are going to experience higher turnover.

Importance

The next piece of The Big BIF is importance. A need for importance is built into our brains because in mammals, the more important an animal is in its group, the better its chance of survival. Even in modern society, importance is the best predictor of health and longevity, better than income or education.

Our brains have a neurotransmitter, serotonin, that constantly reminds us of the importance of importance. Any time we perceive an increase in our importance, we get a surge in serotonin. It lasts just a few seconds, but it feels so good we’re constantly looking for ways to get the next surge. The reason we like serotonin so much is that it increases our feeling of wellbeing and counteracts cortisol, the stress hormone.

We give ourselves serotonin bumps in different ways. Some people like to complete other people’s sentences. Some like to announce their own opinions while others are talking. On the positive side, we like to do good work; we like to finish things; we like to help others.

When our importance is threatened, the serotonin levels in our brains go down and our cortisol levels increase. We hate that and we’ll do a lot of things to avoid it. For example, if people disagree with us, we’re likely to argue with them. If we stumble walking down the sidewalk, we blame the sidewalk.

As with belonging, our sense of importance is highly reliant on our jobs. We want to believe that what we do is important. We want to believe we are good at our jobs. We feel a surge of importance when the boss says, “nice work,” or when we’re asked to train somebody in an area where we’re expert.

To stop the flow of employees out the door, organizations need to feed their employees’ sense of importance. Praise is a powerful antidote to turnover, but according to Gallup, it’s a rare commodity in the workplace. One reason is that supervisors often think that if they praise their employees, they’ll want to be rewarded. Supervisors don’t understand that praise is a reward in itself.

Fairness

The third element of the Big BIF is fairness. From the time a mammal is born, it relies on a teat for nourishment. If there are more babies than teats, some babies may die. The babies that fight the hardest for their share survive and pass along their genes, so a need for fairness is passed along to the next generation. In early human groups, food, warmth, and suitable mates were scarce. Demanding an equitable share of the hunt’s bounty, the fire’s heat, and the tribe’s mating opportunities meant a better chance of having offspring and raising them to adulthood.

To our brains, fairness is a reward, delivered in the form of dopamine, another neurotransmitter. When we feel we’ve been treated fairly, we get a small bump in dopamine. If we perceive a situation as unfair, our dopamine levels go down and we feel stressed. Unfairness also activates the insula, the deepest part of the cerebral cortex. When our expectations for fairness are violated, the insula produces a sense of disgust.

Earlier in this article, I said that pay is not a common factor in turnover. But pay inequity is a frequent violator of fairness, and people do leave their employer because they feel they aren’t paid fairly, relative to others. Every organization needs an easy-to-understand pay system and employees need to be trained in how it works.

But fairness goes beyond pay. It’s involved in job assignments, training, promotions, vacation scheduling, policy interpretation, and just about everything else that happens at work. Supervisors need to be trained to see fairness from the employee’s point of view and to be transparent about their decisions.

The Big BIF is a simple way to help leaders understand what drives turnover. But belonging, importance, and fairness do more than just keep employees in place. Gallup’s research shows that they also increase profitability, productivity, and customer satisfaction. Teach your leaders to use The Big BIF as the cornerstones of the employment relationship. Then watch the results fall to the bottom line.

Bradley Harris is co-owner of NeuroSense Consulting, a Carson City HR consulting company specializing in neuroscience-based business coaching, management training, and leadership development. Contact him at bradley@neurosenseconsulting.com.


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