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Recovering From The Great Attrition

The challenge for managers is that we are no longer comparing apples with apples. Instead, we must leverage the power of personas to better understand the individuals that make up our teams.
This article is part of my FY24 Strategic Outlook series.

If your experience as a line manager over the last few years has been anything like mine when posting a job ad, then you will have felt yourself wondering ‘is anyone out there?’ This is not to say there are no applicants, rather it is that The Great Attrition is seeing a scarcity of appropriate talent.

In a 2022 survey by McKinsey, the ‘likelihood that respondents will leave their current job in the next 3-6 months’ showed:

  • 66% in India.
  • 40% in Singapore.
  • 41% in Australia.
  • 40% in the US.
  • 38% in Canada.
  • 33% in the UK.

While there is something poetic about ‘Dear old Blighty’ finishing last, a case can be made that the percentages above are not just a barometer of how discontented workers are, but also how uncertain the prevailing economic conditions are in the various countries. In that people may loath their jobs, but if mobility is poor and prospects bleak, the role you have is better than no role at all.

What is perhaps most alarming about the above statistics, is that the sentiment is not reflected in conversations I have with hiring managers. Indeed, going beyond my own anecdotal observations, recent surveys find that the average manager places the likelihood that members of their team may leave at a mere 20%. Before you ask, the answer is no, sentiment has not radically changed in the last year, though it is changing. Rather, it is that people tend to be optimists when thinking about their team.

At the risk of sounding like an arch pessimist, there is another even less discussed group of employees to consider in this equation, the ‘quiet quitter’. We have all come across them, people who we know are more focussed on dropping their kids at day care, putting on the next load of laundry, or using the office network to stream their favourite shows, than they are on active engagement with their responsibilities. There are also those who may not surf Netflix during office hours, but do join meetings on mute, camera off, and when pushed for interaction simply reply, ‘nothing to add’. If pressed by their manager about outcomes, they then cite being in too many meetings. Doing what – I often wonder.

This does not beg the question, which seems to permeate every management discussion I have or article I read these days, ‘what do we need to do differently to attract and retain top talent?’ Rather, it begs the question what do we need to do differently to engage and get the most out of the talent we have attracted and retained.

Engaging the Disengaged

The first thing to apprehend when thinking about engaging your team is that it largely begins and ends with organisational culture. Undoubtedly, there is much you can do as a manager to improve team harmony, happiness, and performance. But unless there is buy-in from the senior leadership team and a fertile organisational culture that encourages growth, you may find your best efforts are still seeing high staff turnover or less than optimal morale. Which tends to result in mangers joining the The Great Attrition.

There is also the macro-economic climate to keep in mind. To take a local example, if the RBA (Reserve Bank of Australia) is hiking interest rates at record levels, people are unable to make their rent or home loan repayments, and have cut all ‘fun’ spending from their life. Unless you have the power to offer them an inflation-plus-buffer-against-further-inflation pay rise, your team will appreciate your concern and efforts but remain demotivated and even depressed. In short, keep your capabilities in perspective and do not be too hard on yourself if you are ‘doing all the right things’ and it still isn’t moving the needle.

Second, even though you might not succeed with all of your team, there are still several levers you can likely pull to make a difference to some of them. We will come to these in a moment, for now it is enough to recognise opportunities when they present themselves, rather than becoming obsessed with a specific goal. Opportunism can be a good thing when it creates win-win outcomes.

Those two caveats out the way, the reality of people management is that one size will never fit all. You may love bonding sessions down at the pub, but if the pub scene isn’t for everyone in your team, mandating ‘happy hour’ once a week is likely to repel as many people as it attracts. This is one of the wonders and drawbacks to diversity. While your team’s capabilities are strengthened by not having a room full of clones, it also means you are dealing with an ever more diverse range of motivations. To make this a little more tangible, we can think of employees as loosely grouped into five personas. While not a comprehensive list of all traits in the workplace, this does provide a good starting point for understanding teams.

  1. Workplace Traditionalists: while not necessarily married to their jobs, the classic traditionalist is career motivated. If they have to make personal or lifestyle compromises for the sake of work, they are willing to do so. They want to work full-time and broadly think that work is done in a place of business. Measurable outcomes are desired and accountability enforced.
  2. Dreamers: it is all about potential, be it promotion, or life goals. Dreamers also highly value inclusive workplaces that subscribe to their ideological outlook, whatever that may be. On the job training and work provided / paid for development opportunities rank high on the list of perks that will attract and retain them.
  3. Autonomy Lovers: little is more important to them in their working day than flexibility. This involves remote work, the ability to schedule work around personal commitments, and additional days off (such as RDOs or additional annual leave). There is also a preference to keep performance metrics well away, there will always be work so let’s leave ‘what’s next’ until tomorrow.
  4. Caregivers: mostly made up of parents who, accustomed to the work from home arrangements of COVID, continue the trend by looking after their kids between meetings. Caregivers also includes parents with older children who stress ‘work-life balance’ or who are now needing to care for elderly relatives. This group, similar to autonomy lovers, prize time flexibility highly, but also want dedicated support of their caregiver role — such as company sponsored day care or a 4-day working week.
  5. GenMe: a complex persona that prizes individualism above all else. Pay and promotion are key drivers as are people perks (e.g., flexible working hours and locations, extra annual leave, a transport allowance, gym membership etc.). COVID and The Great Attrition have been catalysts in unlocking latent GenMe attitudes in a broad section of the workforce who previously fell into the previous four categories.

The importance of these personas is that we can start to see some trends emerging, along with opportunities to challenge paradigms. Personas also help in unpacking the disconnect between employees and employers regarding their reasoning behind employment market trends in recent years.

Employees often cite relational challenges, such as feelings of being undervalued — either by their line manager or the organisation more broadly. This can exacerbate a lack of trust or erode the sense of belonging to an organisation. In other words, employees are citing highly intangible elements of the employee / employer relationship as their reasons for discontent or departure.

Managers by contrast, and perhaps as a result of wanting something concrete they can do, tend to see the causes of The Great Attrition very differently and often stress transactional challenges. They tend to blame lack of employee retention on escalating expectations regarding compensation, wanting an unreasonable work-life balance (read: ‘more time away from the office’), and wanting better jobs (read: ‘more seniority’).

The result is that meaningless initiatives, that is initiatives that are cheap or easy for an organisation to implement, are unlikely to generate much traction with workers and even run the risk of inciting hostility when expectations are created and then disappointed.


The elephant in the room of people management is that talent acquisition and retention is a two sided affair in which organisation wide policies are attempting to speak to the needs of each individual. Arguably a Sisyphean task. This is because an organisation can have inclusive hiring policies, go the extra dollar on the remuneration front, and offer flexible working arrangements. And yet, these are benefits that once given, too often become ‘yesterday’s benefit’ with staff expecting more tomorrow. Be it more caring leaders, work that provides a greater sense of fulfilment and self-actualisation, or an organisational environment that is ‘safer’ (however that is defined). Unless an organisation can do it all, the workforce experience is likely to feel disconnected or even disingenuous to many employees. Hence me calling it a Sisyphean task, but unlike the Greek myth — not a hopeless one.

Solutions lie in creating tailored employee experiences. A concept that does not have a five word of less answer. Rather, deeply challenges generally accepted notions of management which tend to prefer one policy to rule them all and reject anything that might create disparity between individual staff. Lest a manager or organisation be accused of creating inequality in the workforce.

This is not to say that Jen should be paid more than Jack for the same job. Rather, it is to acknowledge that if money is all that matters to Jen and Jack wants greater flexibility to work remotely and care for a family member, tailoring the right employment formula will mean that in the purely tangible space (e.g. income), there may appear to be inequity. However, once we step back and consider the employee experience as a whole, we see that remuneration is relational (e.g. emotional and situational) and transactional (e.g. pay and promotion). Meaning that Jen and Jack are ‘equally’ remunerated with rewarding and fulfilling jobs despite an apparent pay disparity.

The challenge for managers is that we are no longer comparing apples with apples. Instead, we must leverage the power of personas to better understand the individuals that make up our teams. In doing so, we need to draw from the full toolbox, rather than mandating what we think should matter for our employees. When managers do this, they unlock the potential to create organisational environments which measure up socially, morally, and economically for their staff.

Once mangers acknowledge the different ways in which employees experience value and purpose, they begin to redress the challenge of employee attrition. A step that will help your organisation to move from being merely people focussed, to being a people and performance winner.

Good night, and good luck.

Photo by kate.sade on Unsplash.

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