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In the Blink of an Eye

If you enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point, you'll also like his second book. In Blink, Gladwell helps us understand how we make choices with little or no deliberation, seemingly in the blink of an eye. I think his examination of the subconscious behavior of speed-daters can help you recognize how to retain your employees longer.

Gladwell describes a particular speed-dating program that asks participants to list the qualities they're seeking in a date. Before participants take part in the speed-dating, they fill out a questionnaire ranking the importance of such attributes as attractiveness, intelligence, and ambition in a prospective partner. After partaking in the speed-dating, participants complete the ranking again, as well as rating each "date" they met that evening. Comparing the before-and-after rankings provides some helpful insight into

In Gladwell's example, a speed-dater initially lists her ideal partner as intelligent and sincere. But during the speed-dating process, she finds herself attracted to a good-looking man who makes her laugh. Then on the post-speed-dating questionnaire, she specifies attractiveness and sense of humor as the qualities she's seeking. What happened? She subconsciously altered her perception of what's important in a man to correspond to the traits of the person she met and really liked.

Here's where this concept applies to retaining your employees. Let's say an employee repeatedly tells you that his greatest aspiration is to become a vice president of your company. You proceed with that knowledge, and do all you can to help him reach that goal as a way to keep him inspired to stay. At last, you're able to reward his hard work and long hours with the coveted title. Then one day, he tells you he's leaving to go to an employer with a flexible work schedule that allows for greater work-life balance. But, you remind him, I just fulfilled your wish of becoming a VP. That's not as important to me as it once was, he says. No one would blame you for being confused. But, just like speed-daters, our employees can change their minds about what's important when they recognize something more attractive. Being a vice president--and the accompanying time commitment--might seem highly desirable to your employee, until he holds his newborn child for the first time.

If leaders assume that what their workers value never changes, they overlook what really may inspire their employees to stay. What if you actually ask your employees what they value? In other words, what if you interview them as if you were hiring--or rehiring--them? You might well learn that a valued employee's greatest wish, rather than becoming vice president as you assume, is to raise healthy and successful children. So what can you, as a leader, do to help that employee accomplish this goal? Can you build flexibility into the work schedule that will accommodate being present for a daughter’s dance recital?

You must "rehire" your workers in this way often. Ask your employees why they want to work here. I guarantee your employees are asking themselves that question, and that their answers will vary at different stages in their lives. Maybe an employee once hoped to earn a spot on the executive floor; then along came children and a change in priorities. Or maybe the children are now grown, and the employee is ready to resume a climb up the corporate ladder. Without knowing when changes in aspirations take place, you may continue to make erroneous assumptions about what your workers want. And your employees will be gone in a blink of an eye.
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