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High Turnover: Should You Care?

New research suggests that you focus less on retaining employees and more on re-recruiting your "knowledge nomads."

Increasing employee mobility—the degree to which workers change companies—appears to be a fact of corporate life in the 21st century. But are such workers less committed to their employers as a result?

The common perception is that workers who hop from job to job are less committed; perhaps even suffer from an inability to commit. However, the reality is that this new generation of "knowledge nomads," while moving frequently, do form attachments and commit to employers when they stop, according to Todd L. Pittinsky (HBS PHDOB '01) and Margaret J. Shih, in Knowledge Nomads: Organizational Commitment and Worker Mobility in Positive Perspective from the February issue of American Behavioral Scientist.

The rise of knowledge nomads creates "profound implications for managers and for researchers," says Pittinsky. For example, employers should spend less time trying to "retain" employees through incentives like salary bumps and more time "re-recruiting" them by offering interesting challenges and learning opportunities. Retention will follow when appropriate.

In this Q&A, Pittinsky discusses the research, which was funded by Harvard Business School. He is an assistant professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Shih is an assistant professor in organizational psychology at the University of Michigan.

Mallory Stark: What did your findings show regarding the relationship between employee mobility and employee commitment?

Todd L. Pittinsky: Our data show that workers who are highly mobile (who move to new companies frequently) can be as committed to companies as workers who stay put in a single company. Employee commitment and employee mobility are wholly separate. In our studies, there was no inverse relationship between employee commitment and employee mobility. It was important for us to demonstrate this empirically because there is a deeply ingrained belief among managers and management researchers that committed workers stay in companies and do not move. We tested the relationship multiple ways, and ran multiple statistical analyses, and found something very different and exciting.

We found that commitment to company can coexist with high mobility. Moving between companies a lot does not prevent workers from committing to companies.

It is very common for folks to say today that workers are committed to their projects or to their own career, and not to companies. Nonsense. Employees can be committed to both themselves and to their companies.

Q: What is a "knowledge nomad"?

A: Knowledge nomad is our name for the most interesting group of workers in our research. Knowledge nomads are highly mobile workers. Like nomadic people, they move frequently from place to place. No one organization is their home or life. But also like nomadic people they build homes. They form commitments when and where they stop. They are motivated to work hard, and commit themselves strongly to the companies in which they sojourn. But these commitments do not prevent the workers from moving again.

This group has straightforward but profound implications for managers and for researchers. A knowledge nomad challenges the common vision of today's worker as a worker who will move from company to company to advance his or her own career, forming little commitment to any of the companies. Simply put, these employees do commit to companies. But they move. And they do commit to companies, but retain their commitments to their own careers.

Q: Are there other ways of measuring employee commitment besides length of time a worker stays in a job?

A: Length of time in a company is the most common way of measuring employee commitment. And it is the least interesting and least helpful approach for managers. Who is really interested in how long someone stays in a company?

Far more important is the quality and quantity of work someone does when in a company. And commitment, when measured as the length of time a worker plans to be in a company, is a lagging rather than a leading indicator. By the time an employee has made up his or her mind to leave a company it is too late to retain him or her.

We found that commitment to company can coexist with high mobility.

We focus instead on lead indicators that measure employee commitment. In our work, we measure commitment as the degree of an employee's psychological attachment to a company and the intensity (quality and quantity) of physical and mental effort the employee expends on behalf of the company.

The second important innovation in how we measure commitment is our use of commitment patterns. We measure commitment to company alongside commitment to career, commitment to coworkers and commitment to personal goals. This allows us to see how commitments are compatible or in conflict for employees. And this very quickly identifies the critical opportunities for intervention for managers to elicit commitment.

Q: Employers often look at high turnover as a bad thing—but what are the benefits of a highly mobile workforce for an organization? For example, should an employer with a mobile workforce try to tap into the varied backgrounds and experiences of those workers?

A: Employers do often look at turnover as only a bad thing, and that is a shame. As you note, research has demonstrated that some turnover is healthy, indeed essential to organizational well being.

But even more important is what managers do when they see turnover as a bad thing. To drive it down they often employ the wrong remedies.

We split a cohort of managers of a large business organization, and later a large government agency, in half. Half the managers were asked to identify the steps they would take to retain a valued worker. The other half were asked to identify the steps they would take to elicit commitment from a valued worker. The two groups came back with very different action steps.

The managers who were asked to identify ways to retain workers came back with action steps like "increase salary" and "change his or her title." These are small changes, with little payoff. They may keep an employee in a company for a couple of months, but they will not hold an employee for long, and little productivity will be gained. The managers we asked to identify ways to elicit commitment proposed deeper and more individualized action steps, like "find out what challenges make him or her tick" and "provide opportunities for learning on the job."

The main lesson of this exercise, for business leaders and for HR managers, is to not focus on turnover as a good thing or as a bad thing. Rather, let turnover result from the quality of your workplace. Turnover is a symptom, not a problem. Change your mantra from "attract and retain the best employees" to "attract and re-recruit the best employees." By re-recruiting employees you build their commitment. Retention will follow, when appropriate. Focusing on turnover can be counterproductive, focusing managers on the wrong things. Let the retention cart follow the commitment horse, and not the other way around.

The fact that HR organizations are thinking about retaining folks instead of eliciting their commitment is a sad statement on workplace culture today. The word "retain" makes workers sound like chattel. Who wishes to be retained? Most employees seek to be valued, engaged, etc.

Q: What types of organizational arrangements and management practices work best for mobile workers?

A: By far the best arrangements are aligned commitment patterns, an approach to assessing employee commitment we have developed, whereby employees' commitments to their own personal goals (their careers, their personal activities, etc.) are examined in the context of commitment to company. The goal of a manager and the company is to have an employee's multiple commitments reinforcing each other, and reinforcing commitment to the company.

In our initial research, we identified several mechanisms companies use to elicit commitment to company while strengthening the alignment of these different commitments held by all employees. Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter first sparked the study of commitment mechanisms in a groundbreaking study of commitment in communes. She focused on the mechanisms through which these social systems elicited commitment from their members. Today, eliciting commitment remains the leading challenge for every leader, whether in business or the public sector. We refined the commitment mechanisms approach by examining the organizational arrangements in which commitment to company thrives alongside commitment to career, instead of at the expense of it.

Employee opportunities for formal and informal learning emerged as a very significant organizational arrangement that aligns commitments. Opportunities for learning align employees' commitment to career with their commitment to company. Nurturing of small work groups is a second arrangement which emerged repeatedly. Employees seem to feel more attached to their companies when they feel more attached to their small work groups. We are using the path-breaking work of Harvard psychologist J. Richard Hackman—on the conditions leaders can put in place to support teams in their organizations—to promote alignment of employees' commitments to their small work teams and the larger company.

These are examples of organizational-level features that elicit commitment from mobile workers and align commitments so that workers do not have to choose to be committed to their careers or to their companies, but can instead be committed to both.

In addition to these organizational-level features, there are individual management practices. Deb Casados, senior vice president at Charles Schwab, and I have developed a manager's toolkit around re-recruiting employees. It allows managers to collect the data they need, real-time, directly from employees, on what they need to be engaged and committed, and not simply retained.

This group has straightforward but profound implications for managers and researchers.

Our most interesting finding in the studies, however, is not on the power of any one organizational-level mechanism or single management practice, but instead on how diverse each company's opportunities are to develop its employees' commitment.

Each company has distinct resources to elicit and align employee commitments. And each employee has distinct and individual desires. One size fits one. So instead of focusing on identifying the one or two singular organizational mechanisms, or management practices, we instead focus on developing the technologies for companies to identify their own distinct commitment mechanisms, and for managers to identify the appropriate distinct practices to elicit employee commitment.

Q: What were the biggest surprises that you encountered in your research?

A: The biggest surprise to us has been how powerful it can be to challenge assumptions and look at a seminal management challenge—how to engage and motivate employees anew, with a fresh lens and without assumptions. Rather than focus on how managers can retain workers, we have instead focused on how managers can elicit commitment and engage employees. That small difference in the framing has led to profound differences in how we frame our research questions, and in turn to very significant differences in the contributions we can make to practice.

Q: Where does your research go from here?

A: We are taking this work in three directions:

First, we are looking at company leader effects on employee commitment. We are going back to this same data set and looking at the power of commitment and confidence in a company's leader, and senior leadership team, to predict important employee attitudes and behaviors, including commitment.

Second, with Kennedy School Professor of Public Service David Gergen, I am doing an in-depth study of a particularly fascinating group of knowledge nomads, business people who go on to build careers as public servants. These people switch not only organizations, but sectors. We're studying the transition experiences of leaders in the private sector who go on to be public servants at the national level (senators, governors, etc.) and those who transition from business leadership roles to make important contributions as public servants in local communities.

Third and finally, we are working with HR managers in organizations to create high-commitment organizations through the re-recruit and commitment patterns approaches developed in the studies. Consulting projects where we are working directly with practitioners in organizations help us build our theories, collect new data, and make a difference in real-world organizations and real employees' lives.

Mallory Stark is a career information librarian at Baker Library.