Keep your skilled staff, and save overheads.


Tug of war team. (Photo by Toffehoff on Flickr.)

We lose 16-35% of skills each year in our organisations. (source: CIPD 2015)

Western businesses are familiar with the concept of survival in a fluid mix of markets, technology and politics. And mostly they observe that they struggle to hold on to skilled people.

But how much more could we accomplish if, like a Tug of War team, everybody had just one key task, and one reporting line for it?

Look closer at your own workplace, and I’m sure you will see that you unwittingly ask your people to meet not just one, but multiple purposes. It is common that reacting to a topical problem, team briefing says one need, such as ‘Answer in 5 rings’ is a ‘Now issue’; production targets demand a different priority; and salami-slicing of head count cuts across them all. And when performance is reported to the Board, we see fierce inter-team rivalry and blame, as department heads vie to stay clear of the ‘lowest-performer’ spot.

This shifting sand makes it tough to stick to the top priorities, let alone to see the value arising from individual or team contributions. So it’s no surprise that staff respond better to whoever shouts loudest, than to the latest annual plan. Hey, which one is ‘The Key Task’?

When all work to a shared purpose, happiness and retention improve markedly (source: CIPD 2009).

Now we can project sustainable improved in retention and motivation of skilled staff, arising from a genuine sense of shared purpose. Track that and we can slash the costs of hiring and motivating staff!

I suggest this experiment for CEOs and Board members:

-1- Read the published corporate objectives, putting yourself in the shoes of the night shift supervisor or a newly-recruited salesman;

-2- Sample the purposes your staff are trying to meet, asking in person what is top of the sheet in their appraisal and team meetings? Relay these to your most senior managers, challenging them to tell you in a month how they would eliminate (-or defend) any items that do not contribute to the objectives, and to explain how the effects can be sustained;

-3- Continue to ask the purpose question, daily. Tell staff to flag up conflicting messages with local managers…and that if that doesn’t work, they can call you direct (-warn your PA);

-4- Ask your HR and Finance managers to report changes in the costs of hiring and motivating staff.

Anyone want to join a tug of war team? 

However did this become normal?

Modern enterprises are mostly shaped around resources: we have become used to shaping them around vertical streams of money, spans of control, and the ‘ideal’ size of departments. And we try to flatten out the organization chart to a fashionable minimum number of layers.

It is useful to reflect that this layout was invented in the 19th century Prussian Army (source: Scholtes), where speed of relaying instructions across the force was all-important. Whilst the army was very successful on the battlefield, without any testing of its suitability this became the template in commerce too. Matrix Management is a popular legacy of this system, even though many authors on management have reinforced the popular truism that ‘No man can serve two masters’.

Research by (Pink), (Scholtes), and (Alderfer) clearly shows us that ‘carrot and stick’ approaches and incentives only partially motivate workers: the stronger motivation is internal, when staff clearly see their part in the success – so clarity and consistency of purpose are key factors.


# Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD)

-(2015) see Figure 19

-(2009) see p 5, 6.

# Daniel Pink                            see

# Peter Scholtes              see

# Clayton Alderfer              see ERG model.

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