Arguably, most people are hired by an organization for their experience, skills and ability, but most people leave their job because of a poor culture match.

The more that HR folk conduct exit interviews, the more they tend to agree. They’ve learned that it’s not the work per se that drives employees away, but rather discontent with the work environment.

Matching skill sets and experience with jobs is undoubtedly crucial for successful employment, but it’s too often the lion’s share—if not the only share—of the effort used when recruiting. Savvy hiring managers agree that it’s equally important to invest time, thought, and energy into building and maintaining a positive, engaging, and person-focused company culture.

Should I Google the word culture?

Culture might have you shrugging as the idea is rather nebulous, and differs from organization to organization. What control do you really have, particularly in a large, complex concern?

Surprisingly you have quite a bit. Being aware of the top cultural reasons why good people leave is a first step. According to an article by the Harvard Business Review, that studied thousands of company personnel, the main reasons given by those who quit their jobs were:

  • dissatisfaction with their boss
  • inability to relate to their co-workers,
  • boredom and feeling unfulfilled in their work
  • meaningless work and/or under-utilization of their talent
  • little autonomy / not feeling included in company goals
  • lack of recognition
  • other cultural issues regarding consideration, pay and benefits

Patrick Lencioni, author of HR-related books that have sold millions of copies, points out similar signals of cultural breakdown. He summarizes these in “The Three Signs of a Miserable Job”:

  • Anonymity
  • Irrelevance
  • Immeasurement (term coined by the author)

What’s encouraging is that these problems are avoidable–albeit some more so than others. When you consider the value of staff retention, being aware of these issues and taking steps to rectify them in an intentional manner should be uppermost in your leadership’s agenda.

Conquering culture

Here are some ways to address the problems listed above:

Pay careful attention to your staff – and really listen
Pressures and demands are real in an organization and it’s common to neglect the human factor. Always remember that your employees, first and foremost, are human beings with fundamental needs and desires. They need to communicate, express their hopes, initiatives and frustrations, to be heard and understood. Marriage counselors say that some 90% of solutions come more from listening and empathy than from solving problems. An exec or manager who knows how to listen sincerely—without condescension or hints of superiority — builds a culture of trust, loyalty and gratitude. It might take time, but it’s time well invested in your organization’s cultural health. You’ll also make certain that no-one is left feeling anonymous.

Be conscious of inter-personal relationships
A by-product of listening is being aware of personality conflicts, which is definitely a role of HR/ senior management. We all know leaders who’ve been placed in positions of authority who don’t have great people skills. This often happens in tech where someone who’s fantastic at their job gets promoted, but they’re really more of a thinker (or ‘do’er) than a leader. On occasion I’ve interviewed many staff from the same department who want to change jobs to escape someone who doesn’t motivate or inspire them, or who is simply awful to be around. You need to nip this in the bud quickly—move the manager before you lose a whole lot of talent.

Let go of the reins – give staff responsibility
Many managers are scared of letting go. They might be overburdened and almost burnt out, but they still try to handle the load, keeping most of the important stuff on their own desks. This is highly frustrating for competent staff who long to be stretched and demonstrate their talent or develop new skills. Lack of trust is part of the problem, but why buy a dog and keep on barking yourself?

Many employees are capable of more than they’re doing, and they don’t like being side-lined. Get them into the game! If people are not challenged, they’ll become bored and disengaged. and this might start affecting their colleagues. Developing people and helping them thrive is a crucial leadership skill, and you may be amazed by how well people perform when they’re put under pressure.

Ensure on-going development
Grooming high performers to take on more responsibility is essential for retention and for succession planning. Creating mentors and sponsors that have specific roles can help employees see that their career paths are on track. When people feel that they have a future in your company it has a powerful impact on their engagement and productivity. While Line Managers are the ones working closely with their staff, development is something that should be overseen by HR (if possible). This is particularly true when promotions and transfers are involved, as some managers tend to hold onto their talent rather than considering a person’s career!

Get staff involved with company goals
Keeping employees engaged means winning their hearts and minds. A great way of doing this is to get people excited about the future plans of the business. When staff really buy into a company’s mission they are much more connected and invested in their jobs. With this in mind, why would a company withhold strategic plans from its staff?

Performance review and recognition
Some altruistic people might be happy to do good work below the radar, but the majority like to know that their efforts are recognized. This is when a good performance management system really helps, but so does paying constant attention. Too many companies fall into the trap of reacting when an employee does something wrong, but staying quiet when they achieve something good. Job satisfaction is greatly enhanced when people feel valued, and some will even turn down a better-paying job offer if they feel important and appreciated by their current employers.


Peter Drucker is quoted as saying: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, meaning your organization’s environment trumps systems and plans when it comes to empowering your people. Still, surveys indicate that a high percentage of the work force are dissatisfied with their jobs, so few companies should feel complacent. Building a strong culture isn’t as easy as ticking a box because emotions and aspirations are involved but it’s what good people management is all about. Leaders who inspire and bring out the best in their employees will definitely reap the rewards—starting with retaining your talent.