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Improve Employee Retention: A Guide to 5 Critical Leadership Skills



  • Leadership & Strategy
  • Talent Management

Improve Employee Retention: A Guide to 5 Critical Leadership Skills

Improve Employee Retention with thee 5 leadership soft skills

Employee retention strategies are cropping up everywhere. But even the “best of the best” strategies won’t help if leaders don’t have the skills to positively engage people one-on-one.

The key to engaging and retaining good people relies on those soft skills that good leaders know they need to constantly strive to get better at.

Why We Need to Improve Employee Retention

Nearly half of employees are considering leaving their job in the next year, according to data from LinkedIn and Microsoft.

Knowing that half of your people could walk out the door this year, you likely want to do more to ensure they stay now and beyond.

So here are five leadership skills that are guaranteed to help companies improve employee retention.

Retention Skill 1: Listening

We have two ears and one mouth, so we may listen more and talk less.


Ironically, good communication depends more on a person’s ability to listen than on his or her ability to speak. When leaders listen well, they absorb issues, understand feelings, foresee potential problems and solutions, and eventually communicate the right decisions in the right tone.

Any leader can hear and parrot back information. Good leaders listen so they can process the information.

Follow these tips to better listening:

  • Keep yourself clear. When employees, colleagues, clients or customers need their managers, it’s important to give them undivided attention by talking privately at an arranged time with no distractions (e-mail, phones, paperwork). Tip: When employees ask their managers, “Do you have a minute?” If they don’t have time they can respond, “I only have a minute right now. If you need more time, I’d be happy to arrange a meeting later today.”
  • Take notes. This serves two purposes: It helps leaders remember what’s been said and keeps track of the most important facts and emotions. Taking notes also shows people you care and are listening wholeheartedly.
  • Hold your tongue. Avoid interrupting speakers, especially in one-on-one conversations. Let others get through the facts and emotions. Often, just spilling their guts is enough to make them feel better – and you’re a hero for listening and not saying a word!
  • Get focused. If managers have an important task to accomplish, they should make a note of it before they start a conversation with someone. That way they can stop thinking about the call to make, e-mail to send, report to finish, etc., and focus on the conversation at hand.
  • Hold judgment. Put aside unrelated personal feelings about people and their circumstances when listening to them. Instead, focus on the facts and acknowledge emotions.
  • Be open to opinions. Leaders sometimes don’t agree with what employees, co-workers, clients and customers say – and stop listening because they’re focusing on their rebuttal. Instead, they should continue to listen and note their points when it’s their turn to talk.
  • Respond, don’t react. Finally, when you’re done listening and ready to talk, focus on giving a response rather than a reaction. What’s the difference? A response is a balance of thought and emotion, and often includes a question so you can better understand. A reaction is mostly an emotional action that lacks thought and understanding of what the other person said.

Retention Skill 2: Communicating

Communication is about being effective, not always about being proper.

Bo Bennett

Communicating well is the cornerstone of good relationships. Whether leaders are talking to employees or colleagues, writing e-mails, training or speaking in front of a group, these communication essentials will help:

  • Create a commonality. Once leaders know their colleagues and employees, they can share information about themselves that they have in common (for instance, a hobby, past experience in work or life, an interest in events or sports, etc.). It makes them more approachable.
  • Be courteous. People will listen, and things will get done if managers communicate with courtesy. For example, “Can you please …?” “I need you to do … Will you be able to?” “Please take care of …”
  • Be consistent. Match your tone of voice with your words.
  • Clarify. When the topic is important (not just casual), it’s vital for managers to make sure they’re understood. For example, they could ask “What questions do you have about this report?”
  • Show confidence. Back up statements with facts. Leaders should try to avoid tentative language such as might, maybe, possibly and ASAP.

Retention Skill 3: Nonverbal Communication

When deeds speak, words are nothing.

African Proverb

In most cases, actions speak louder than words. If a manager says, “I like your work,” and rolls his or her eyes, the words aren’t believable.

In fact, research has found:

  • The words we choose have a 7% impact on what’s interpreted
  • Tone of voice has a 38% impact, and
  • Body language has a 55% impact.

That’s why it’s important for leaders to make sure their body language complements what they say. They can do this by keeping these non-verbal communication cues in check:

  • Eye contact. Looking directly at people when speaking shows respect and sincerity. It builds a better conversation and relationship. On the flip side, leaders who avoid eye contact appear to be sneaky, guilty, bashful or frightened. Caveat: Avoid staring or blinking rapidly. Instead, look away from time to time to appear relaxed and comfortable. Tip: If maintaining eye contact is uncomfortable, focus on the bridge of the listener’s nose. This gives the appearance of looking someone in the eye.
  • Body position. Conversing while standing or sitting side-by-side can make people feel disconnected, and when done face-to-face can be uncomfortable. Ideally, it’s best to keep the same eye level and remain at a slight angle from others. In addition, maintaining good posture shows confidence so others will pay attention.
  • Proper distance. Being too close or too far from others during a conversation can make it less productive. Stay within arm’s reach. Also, pay attention to people’s body language. If they seem uncomfortable, give them a little more space.
  • Gestures. Motion can add meaning to or detract from messages. Remember:
    • Crossed arms signal anger or lack of openness to ideas.
    • Playing with clothing, jewelry, pencils, etc., distracts listeners.
    • Large gestures also distract the audience.
  • Facial expressions. A person’s face speaks the loudest in non-verbal communication. Forced smiles show insincerity. A wrinkled forehead shows tension. Pursed lips suggest anger. Rolling eyes or head tilts indicate disapproval. Managers need to make sure the facial expressions they use are in line with the message they want to deliver.

Retention Skill 4: Delivering Bad News

Nothing travels faster than light, with the possible exception of bad news, which follows its own rules.

Douglas Adams

Only one thing can be worse than hearing bad news: delivering it. Nearly every leader has to deliver bad news at one time or another.

Doing it with finesse will help managers go down in company history as a well-liked professional.

Here’s how to deliver bad news so it’s a little easier on the people affected by it:

  • Make it fast. Delivering the news as quickly as possible gives people a chance to plan their next move. One caveat: Avoid delivering bad news on a Friday (or whatever is the end of the work week) so the news doesn’t fester with people for days, and they come back to work upset or resentful.
  • Visit or call. Deliver bad news personally. When leaders do this, it shows they care about how the news will affect their people. Delivering bad news via e-mail or a memo suggests leaders are distancing themselves from the people and situation.
  • Be as honest as possible. Managers don’t have to reveal every detail (because some are personnel- or financial-related). Plus, people don’t have time for all the details. But to maintain credibility, leaders want to avoid covering up mistakes, forgetfulness or miscommunications that led to decisions and bad news.
  • Take responsibility. Leaders don’t want to blame themselves, their bosses or the company if they aren’t to blame. Then again, don’t blame “the economy” for everything, either. Acknowledge your part in the situation without being defensive.Respond. Give employees, co-workers, clients or customers a chance to discuss how the bad news affects them. Acknowledge their feelings, and offer suggestions on how to deal with the situation.

Retention Skill 5: Saying No

The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.

Tony Blair

You’d think to be a people person, leaders would also have to be a “yes man/woman.” Wrong. Leaders have to say no to people and ideas, or they’d never get anything done. However, it’s best to give a no answer in a way that doesn’t make the person with the request feel rejected.

Here’s how:

  • Empathize. When leaders and managers can’t do what people want or can’t give employees permission to do something, they need to let them know they understand the situation.
  • Clarify. Leaders should explain why they have to refuse the request.
  • Offer something. It’s best for leaders to end the denial on a positive note by telling people how they’re willing to help.


“I see you need some help, but your request is outside normal procedures. Have you considered … ?”

“I can tell this is important to you. It’s a unique situation. I can help you by … ”

“I’d like to do that, but it’s beyond what’s possible for us. Please let me help you in another way.”

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