Want to Keep Your Most Valued Employees? Start Using the “F Word”.

There I stood in front of the executives, face blushing with a bit of awkwardness. The four-letter F-word just flew out. From the early days of my career, I was warned not to use it, and to be honest, my logic-driven, competitive self avoided it at all cost. But things are changing in recent years—and we are all part of the transformation—so I am becoming more comfortable speaking it with conviction.

I didn’t apologize for using it; instead, I sprinkled it generously throughout the conversation. What’s more, I encouraged the executives to start using it themselves to reconnect with their most valuable team members, “Do you really understand and care about how your company’s culture makes people feel?”

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou spoke those words years before 23 million Americans walked away from their jobs during the Mass Exodus of 2021. Their purpose and values no longer aligned with what companies said and did. In fact, research shows 40% of those who left did so due to burnout, with many more fleeing from a lack of flexibility, not feeling their ideas were valued, and experiencing discrimination.

How did we get here? I think leaders have been following what their stakeholders value with the best of intentions, some just haven’t pivoted into the Human Age’s way of leading yet. In the Industrial Age, companies focused on how people worked as the assembly line and streamlined processes were paramount to success.

During the Information Age, beginning in the 1960s, data grew to be the primary focus. Information was available and inexpensive on a scale never experienced before, transforming the ways we live and work. Today, information occupies most of our waking life. We are obsessed with what people are doing in addition to how they are doing it. We check our devices every 6 minutes and are exposed to up to 10,000 ads a day. Add that to the 24/7 news cycles about the pandemic and politics, well, it’s no wonder why people are feeling off-balance and disconnected from each other and from their workplaces.

Until recent years, companies were less concerned with the why. The Human Age began, at first, by the need for companies to leverage data flow to better understand and provide personalization for their customers (e.g. customer experience, user experience, design thinking, and journey mapping). After the pandemic, however, the Human Age is a tidal wave sweeping away the paradigms of what’s acceptable for work-life balance. We are learning true empathy is necessary to understand how people feel and it can only come from authentically listening and observing.

These changes are happening so fast, leaders need to make an epic pivot to engage and retain team members. Their company’s culture is defined by leaders’ actions—who they are being, not just what they are saying. And “leadership” is not just at the tip-top, it is everyone in a place of authority to impact the organization’s culture. Igniting engagement can start as simply as asking these two questions:

  • Is your culture a positive one that will empower employees and provide connection to purpose?
  • Are you providing a way that each person can practice purpose in a form that’s meaningful to themselves while still supporting the organization?

Let go of the thinking that “things will return to normal…” (the way things were before the pandemic). Our values have been changed forever and we’re not going back. People realize life is short. They have ideas to share. They have value that is worth including. They deserve to feel connected and recharged with purpose from their work.

Transform your corporate culture today by putting purpose into practice. Studies show profits and productivity are higher in companies with high employee engagement as they are 21% more profitable with 41% lower absenteeism.

So, go ahead—use your year-end goal setting process as a time to discuss the f-word with your own team! Organizations that go beyond focusing on the how and what, that also start paying attention to why people feel the way they do at work, will attract and retain team members who feel more engaged and happier.