What drives a highly engaged, motivated employee to leave a company? The answer may lie closer to diversity than it initially seems. Research has been highlighting the personal connection employees have to their positions, and despite high productivity, the work may not align with the trajectory of their life story or identity, negatively effecting them.
Co-author of an upcoming paper titled “Should I stay or should I go? Identity and well-being in sense-making about retention and turnover,” Teresa Rothausen studied what might be possible causes of employee turnover, which link to diversity and inclusion. Rothausen, professor of management and the Susan E. Heckler Endowed Chair in Management at the University of St. Thomas, discusses her findings along with a new book by Frederic Laloux, “Reinventing Organizations,” which supports many of her viewpoints on organizations. Laloux explained that companies are moving into a new abundance model, which counteracts competitive aspects that emerge from a culture of fear and scarcity.
According to Rothausen, the connections between meaning of work, self-expression, and the new abundance model and how they relate to diversity. Below are edited excerpts from her interview with Diversity Executive.
What are the findings in your paper?
We interviewed about 60 highly engaged employees who had left their organization. A lot of the times, we think if one is highly engaged, you’re going to stay. We were really interested in what makes highly engaged people want to leave. There were six factors that came out, and what was interesting about that is that the factors went across all domains of their lives. If they left, their job was having a negative impact on their work or career identity — that was important — but also on their family identity and community identity, a lot of other things.
We operate in the old organization as if people were sort of an amalgam of parts rather than an integrated whole — as if we could leave parts of ourselves at home, but we bring those with us. If people tell us “we don’t want that part of you,” then we don’t feel valued. And we don’t feel that we can live our purpose, express who we truly are.
The six factors we found were that people left because: They felt like they weren’t able to live out their purpose, their purpose of meaning, their mission and still work at this job; feeling that personally their job was not helping them build the life story that they wanted to build for themselves, so that’s trajectory; the sense of relatedness, the warm, human relationships; self-expression; feeling good about yourself or self-acceptance; and differentiation, which is really related to the diversity piece, people want to feel like they are valued as unique individuals, not just as an interchangeable part with somebody else. That skips back to your whole life experience and whether that’s valued or not at your workplace.
People who are highly engaged left for one of those six reasons, or oftentimes it was a combination of those reasons.
What does the new abundance model for organizations entail?
Mindsets are powerful predictors of behavior. You've heard the saying "perception is reality." In some ways, our perceptions about reality shape the future. So, if we believe resources are scarce and for one person to win, another must lose, you act that way, thereby creating that reality for yourself and those around you. If you believe there are abundant resources — enough for you and for others — you act that way, and begin to create that reality for yourself and those around you. In his new book on reinventing organizations, Frederic Laloux says that our current organizations were built from certain levels of awareness and newer organizational forms will come from higher levels. Abundance is a large part of that.
How does the fear in the ecosystem affect people’s self-expression, and, in the end, their productiveness?
If resources are scarce, we're looking for reasons to cut people and we are afraid of things that aren't immediately measureable in the short term. People become afraid to fully express themselves as unique individuals because if they don't fit in or seen as bringing in a fresh idea that may at first not be seen as "core to the business," they may be seen as less committed and lose their jobs. If the message is "conform or leave, we don't have time for you to think, create, be yourself, bring your whole self in," people don't do it. So, we may have hired someone for bringing a diverse perspective, but our culture of fear quashes their ability to express it once they're in our organization.
The paper also talks about finding meaning of work versus the job being a mere paycheck or “trading time for money.” What’s the shift we’re seeing?
I think a lot of research is showing now that a lot of the models that we use in old organization types based more on economic transactions, and I think we’re moving back again to the idea of vocation and people wanting to contribute something to the world, rather than just kind of a self-interest in improving myself. It’s not either-or — both things are true. But which one we focus on is becoming more of a reality.
It’s true that there are scarce resources and people have to be self-interested, but it’s also true that people are altruistic, that people want to help with the world’s problems and people find meaning if they can make a difference to a problem or another person. Both of these things are true but we tended to focus on the economic transaction and self-interest, appealing to people’s self-interest in organizations, appealing to their egos and higher selves. To their quest for meaning in life, and how their work plays in on that.
How can people reconcile their personal identities with orderliness of workplaces?
We say we want people’s energy, especially with diversity, we say we want people’s unique life experiences and creative ideas — that’s why we hire different people, because they’re going to help us in the diverse world to be a successful business. Both are creativity and innovation, but also entering the markets and all sorts of things. We say we want that, we ask them to come with their identity, whether it’s as a person of color, as a woman, as a person with disabilities, we want that experience so that we can understand it and integrate it in our organization and serve our customers better, and then when they get in the organization we tell them, “we don’t want to hear about that stuff.”
The organization has to change. Individuals can do some things, definitely, but if we don’t build these new kinds of organizations with a mindset of abundance, it’s going to be hard for people as individuals to feel secure about bringing those kinds of pieces of themselves to the workplace.