Leadership, morale and employee turnover

2012

Nearly half of newly-hired workers in entry-level unskilled jobs in the U.S., like those in the fast-food industry, quit in less than one year. In fact, annual turnover in these jobs is between 65 and 85 percent. That means that in a fast-food restaurant with 20 employees, 10 will quit each year while of their 10 replacements, half will also leave before the same year is up.

So why is it that prospective employees who start off feeling excited about their new job become so disgruntled, replacing positive attitudes with negative perceptions that can often include excluding extreme feelings of frustration and even hatred?

Understanding the reasons employees quit so soon after hire is a mystery for most business leaders. Often the blame is ascribed to poor working conditions, low pay, boring work and inflexible hours. But this is not necessarily supported by research or literature. A far more likely reason for early departure is the behavior of the front-line supervisors who interact with employees most often.

The first few days on a new job are critical for socialization of newcomers into the intended culture of the organization. Newly-hired employees are excited to take on new jobs and responsibility. They tell friends and family about their new jobs and the wonderful things they believe to be true. When socialization is put into action successfully – and the process never ends - employees are more likely to enjoy their jobs and stay committed to the organization.

In the first few months of employment, the single most likely cause employees quitting is the behavior of their immediate supervisors. Even with the best leaders in place, newly-hired employees will continue to quit in less than one year, but the rate should be lower than when ineffective bosses are at the helm.

The irony with the problem of turnover is that these same low-wage workers are the most visible personification of an organization's brand. How customer contact workers treat customers is how the organization is perceived. This is the reason larger chains have developed indoctrination programs to 'socialize' new employees into the culture of the organization, covering subjects like quality, customer focus, and service.

Even then, with focus on finding the right employees and training them in the way of the organization, if half of newly-hired workers quit in their first year, something in this socialization process must be going wrong.

The most important objective for leaders should be to assimilate newcomers into the organizational culture so they can feel like members of the team. But they need to be aware that while employee inclusion within large groups is effective for organizational identity, it does little for employee morale.

In contrast, small group memberships are important for a sense of belonging and self-worth among peers. Self-worth and feelings of belonging can improve morale and keep workers employed beyond the termination-prone early months. Small group memberships could be any gathering, like a lunch group, club, or workers in a similar trade.

Leadership Types
Earlier perspectives of employee turnover were that employees were expected to adapt behavior and attitudes to match organizational expectations. Employers communicated expectations and if employees rose to an equilibrium point of understanding the culture, they were thought to be satisfied with the work. This attitude of business managers was especially prevalent after WWII when ex-military workers flooded the civilian .It was not uncommon for workers to see themselves in submissive positions to corporate (military-like) bosses.

Attitudes changed in 1994 when researchers discovered new trends in quitting dynamics. The unique twist was that instead of deciding to quit because of job dissatisfaction or failure to understand job expectations, employees decide to quit when bombarded with shocks to their unbalanced perceptions of organizational culture. A factor that distinguishes this new theory from previous beliefs is that the most important factors for communicating organizational culture are front-line supervisors.

Organizational Culture
When front-line supervisors behave in ways that accurately reflect intended organizational culture, employee perceptions are considered to be in balance, creating conditions where they are less disturbed by the little things that can turn good days into bad. Those little disturbances can be as simple as not finding a parking spot, confronting a blunt security officer, or finding that a co-worker swiped a favorite stapler.

However, when employees are not happy with the behavior of their boss and perceive their working environment to be the opposite of friendly, supportive and collaborative, insignificant disturbances can drive employee morale down and increase the likelihood of quitting decisions. Under these perceptions-based theories of leader behavior, bosses can no longer act as supreme leaders, incapable of doing wrong. Instead, they become members of the team, acting as facilitators, cheerleaders and cultural communicators..

Challenges of Front-line Supervisors
Complicating the goal of increasing morale and reducing turnover is that front-line supervisors are often young, inexperienced, and improperly trained. Without a solid understanding of the effects of their behavior on culture, managers can inadvertently project negative social messages.

Leaders must project positive attitudes at all costs, otherwise their behavior can strike at the very productivity they are quested to achieve. Negatively perceived behavior can change employee mood from positive to destructive in a matter of minutes. To keep moods high, supervisors and higher-level managers must trust the capabilities and organizational commitment of line workers.

When leaders believe workers are good people, they begin the process of creating supportive, collaborative, and friendly environments. Unfortunately, many managers continue to believe that employees must adapt to cultural expectations. And, in a sense, that contention is partly true. However, workers will never know organizational expectations if front-line supervisors fail to personify organizational culture in ways that make employees happy.

Summary
If employees expect a culture to be friendly, supportive, and collaborative, front-line managers must project that very same culture. When they do, employees will remain dedicated to organizational purpose by rising to work expectations. However, when leaders fail to represent organizational culture accurately, employees will feel a disconnect between expected and experienced organizational culture causing all kinds of socialization problems.

Good leadership is common sense. Leadership is about people; management is about systems and processes. The common factors of good leadership:

  • Manager behavior is the most significant factor in employee morale. Supervisor and employee contact must become a regular occurrence.
  • Manager expectations are important for productivity and quality but they are ineffective if leaders fail to behave in ways that propagate positive cultures. Supervisors cannot expect workers to treat customers in positive and customer focused ways if they believe leadership is about correction and discipline.
  • Managers must create cultures where employees feel as if they own their operation. That feeling cannot happen if bosses project boss-like behavior.
  • Managers must allow local communities of workers to share, and solve, frustrations.
  • Regardless of the work, working culture must be fun. Even routine work can be engaging and fun if employees feel supported by their bosses.

more articles

About The Author

Duane Dike
Duane Dike

Duane Dike is the manager of creative production for a large entertainment company in Southern California. He has a doctorate in management and organizational leadership and an MBA in management. He is a popular guest speaker for education and management groups on subjects related to innovation, leadership and thinking.

Older Comments

Excellent piece, Duane. All excellent points that managers everywhere should review regularly!

Dan Bobinski United States