The Fallen Knights: why do star employees leave?
18 October 2023 at 09:49 · 9 min read
Have we really understood why our star employees leave?
‘Some of the fighters wear the best uniforms and do the best drills. They are the best knights in the battlefield’, said Zain Hashmi in his book, A Blessed Olive Tree. Unlike Zain’s critical (read: melancholic) knight, ours is a high-performing immensely focused employee who works day and knight (it rhymed well) to fuel their ambitions. However, these diligent and ‘hustle on-the-go’ types often experience continual overwhelm, until they reach a tipping point and quit.
Of course in Scandinavia, we attribute success to the entire team, which is true, but as a CEO we know that the knights in the team go the extra mile. Contrary to popular belief, they are not hierarchically specific. They can either be found in the management or can be disguised as an entry level employee at the company. Independent research by McKinsey and Company revealed that star employees comprise between 5 - 10% of the company. According to CEB, almost one-third of them feel disengaged from their employer, and are already looking for a new job.
Although it is practically impossible to retain them at all times, these pitfalls can surely be avoided. Research has revealed a wide array of subtle and emotional factors that contribute to this disengagement. Let’s go over a few of them.
Unlike their task-oriented counterparts, star employees are goal-oriented. They drive change and create ripple effects that are felt throughout the organization. With an underlying drive for innovation and getting things done, they initiate side projects within the organization and pursue them diligently. Sometimes they can be ‘annoying’ in a sense that they are active in suggesting new improvements in the product or services they are working with. In recognition of their efforts, companies traditionally provide monetary benefits in form of increased pay, bonuses, and stock options.
But is this approach sustainable? It can’t be denied that a goal-oriented mindset has its perks. However, its consistency depends upon the set of values shared by the employer and employees. When star employees do not find themselves aligned with the company's values, the same work becomes a nightmare. The motivation nose-dives and they feel drained from continuous obligations. Although money is a prime instrument organizations use to keep their star performers content, it is generally a poor driver of satisfaction. A meta-analytics study indicates that when people are paid too much for doing something that they enjoy, they may end up enjoying it less. As an Icelander I frequently use the jacuzzi and sauna for enjoyment and relaxation and if I suddenly got paid for those visits then it might actually affect my enjoyment.
Relationship with manager and mentorship
Infused with ballooning self-belief and self-expectations, star performers maintain good relationships with their managers and look for mentorship to master their strengths, and overcome their weaknesses. It helps them channelize their efforts towards crafting a career pathway in leadership positions. Since professional relationships are critical to their morale, any breakdown can severely affect their enthusiasm and productivity. The fact that 52% of employees left their jobs citing their manager as the main reason, cements the above notion. It can be particularly damaging, especially in hybrid environments, where new leadership skills are required.
According to Harvard Business Review, mentorship programs in companies randomly assign prospective mentors to mentees. Usually, the mentors are either disinterested or too busy to get actively involved. This begets frustration as the mentee feels underappreciated and insignificant. It takes a toll on their psychological health and well-being. In extreme cases, such contagious behavior diffuses across entire teams – without them necessarily realizing.
Great employees enjoy working with other great people. Their effectiveness quadruples with strong teams, and everyone benefits. It provides them access to an ecosystem where they can bounce-off their ideas and de-bottleneck issues. On the flipside, if the team competence is below par, these superstars can generate team-tension. They expect equal performance from them and can cause resentment from their colleagues. In the latter scenario, remote working can further aggravate the situation.
Amid such a team crisis, companies usually adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, rather than understanding individual needs and working style. According to the book Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do, ‘to create a shared purpose, a team should be diverse and share a similar competence level’. Discrepancies in team competence is an obstacle to star performers’ individual progress. As they lose trust in the team, they start micromanaging activities and risk burning out. If such tensions are not eased in a timely manner, they are left with no option but to look out for new pastures.
When it comes to rewarding and retaining star employees, companies tend to focus more on addressing the symptom rather than the cause of the problem. At Lifekeys we take pride in helping companies retain their top talent. The human-centric solution we offer has empowered companies to keep a periodic check not only on their employees’ well-being but also company culture and on-job performance . Our engaging yet anonymous pulses have been well received, especially by star employees who are open about providing constructive feedback . Companies are able to identify and respond to red flags, as our dashboard showed real time data on organization’s temperature. We coach managers on positive psychology and equip them with skills necessary to lead and celebrate the diversity amongst their teams.
Star performers are an asset to any company. With global competition on rise, companies can’t risk losing them. However, incentivizing them on performance will only work to a certain extent. In reality, the desire to learn and collaborate towards a purpose is what keeps the intrinsic motivation alive. Psychological health of the ‘knights’ is one crucial driver behind the burning desire. If companies manage to keep it in place, the knights of today will be the king of tomorrow.