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What Managers Need to Do When a Team Member Quits (HBR)

Resignations are hard but managers can use these departures to gain critical feedback and hone their leadership style.

(Originally published in HBR. Photo: HBR Staff)


Nearly a year into the Great Resignation — at some point or another — most managers have (or can expect to) experience unwanted attrition on their teams. With no signs of this pattern abating, leaders are fumbling to figure out how to retain top talent.


Research shows that counteroffers are less effective than we think — 50% of employees who accept one end up quitting a year later. By the time a valued team member announces their intent to leave, they’ve usually made up their mind. As manager, new or seasoned, what can you do in this situation?


Rather than throwing money at them or shuffling them through the exit interview process (which Qualtrics reports only about a third of employees complete), be proactive about having an honest conversation with your team member. Odds are, you are not going to be able to convince them to stay. What you can do, however, is learn as much as you can about what has caused them to resign to improve your leadership style, enhance morale on your team, and retain your remaining talent.


Here’s how to get started.


Initiate a conversation.

Getting honest feedback is rarely easy. Unless your team member has had a truly awful experience at your organization, they probably don’t want to burn a bridge. They may attempt to be overly positive and amicable with you upon departing, making it difficult to gather any valuable critical feedback.


Obtaining this information has a lot to do with how you show up — and that starts the moment your team member announces their resignation.


First, pause. Take a deep breath to calm your surprise or distress. Then say something like, “I respect your decision, and I’d like to learn what’s propelling you to leave. Could we schedule a follow-up meeting in a few days once I’ve had a chance to process this?”


The initial resignation conversation can be stressful for both parties, and letting a couple of days pass will allow everyone’s emotions to subside. It will also signal to your team member that you want to have a respectful, in-depth discussion around what drove their decision.


Show positive intent.

To get direct and candid feedback during the actual conversation, you’ll need to promise amnesty. This begins with managing your emotions. When someone resigns, it’s normal to experience disappointment, betrayal, and even anxiety. In this instance, do your best to put those difficult feelings aside.


If you lose your cool in the face of bad news, your team member may hesitate to share negative (and honest) feedback with you. Likewise, if they notice you getting defensive, they may fear negative consequences (like losing you as a reference or burning a bridge) and withhold valuable information.


To allay their concerns on both fronts, do your best to enter the discussion with positive intent and an open mind.


Start by building a little trust. You can do this by getting aligned on how you’ll communicate their departure to the team. Ask, “Do you have a preference on how we share this news?” Even if someone is leaving on a sour note, take the high road in all your communications. Try to agree on some language and express gratitude for their contributions. Remember that other team members will be observing how you handle this situation, and your actions have the power to strengthen or weaken those ties as well.


Once you’ve come to an agreement, move the discussion along by saying something like, “I want to better understand all the reasons that led to your departure. I’d appreciate your honest feedback, even if it’s negative. Your candor will help me improve my leadership and this team. I promise not to react defensively and there will be no retribution. It will not impact any future references I give you or how I talk about your contributions and departure to the team.”


If your trust has been fractured or broken in some way prior to this discussion, these words may only get you so far — but it’s worth a shot.


Probe to get to the root of the problem.

People often quit because they dislike their boss, see limited potential for growth and promotion, or are offered a better opportunity. Additionally, recent research from McKinsey reveals that key drivers of employee resignation also include a lack of belonging or feeling valued at work, and unsatisfying work-life balance.


Explore these areas with targeted questions such as:

  • If we could go back in time, say six months, what could we have done to keep you?

  • What were the best and worst parts of your role? On a scale from 1­­-10, how was the workload? What would you change about the role to make it better for the next person?

  • What growth opportunities do you wish you had received?

  • What was your experience of the team atmosphere? How can I increase a sense of belonging on the team? What else should I do to improve it?

  • What are ways I can improve how valued team members feel?

  • What could I do to make it easier for team members to balance work and life?

  • What are one or two other things I can do better as this team’s leader?

  • What else would help me improve my leadership or people’s experience here?

While you’ll want to ask these questions in your own words, and let their answers guide the direction of the conversation, try to solicit ideas for the future versus feedback on the past. This relieves the person from the uncomfortable position of judge and grants them the more comfortable role of thought partner.


Reflect on what you’ve learned.

Hopefully, by this point, you’ve gotten some valuable feedback to work with. But before you jump in and make a bunch of changes, determine if the concerns you uncovered were unique to that person or are more widespread. If the person is leaving without another exciting opportunity lined up, that’s a sign you may have a larger organizational or team problem to solve.


It could be helpful to revisit your most recent engagement survey or 360 reviews. If the person leaving completes an exit interview, you could also obtain that information from HR to learn what they’ve shared and see if it aligns with any negative feedback you’ve identified.


During your one-on-one meetings, assess whether the concerns you’ve unearthed are more widespread. Ask your team some of the questions above, too, and actively listen to their responses. By giving them an outlet to voice frustrations, you may identify their concerns before they become bigger problems and end up increasing retention.


In addition, a colleague’s leaving can be both disheartening and demotivating. These personalized check-ins will show your team that you care about them and any impacts they may be facing.


Make necessary changes.

Review the data you’ve collected and look for patterns or trends. Does some element of your leadership need refining? Does your team feel valued? Are they craving opportunities for growth or new challenges? Do you need to work on the psychological safety of your team, so members feel more comfortable in sharing their opinions and suggestions in the moment?


Prioritize change, and tackle any quick wins as well. For example, if your team members are looking for more professional growth, you can easily schedule time to meet with each of them to understand their aspirations and align on some development opportunities.


Resignations are hard on any team and organization. Using the departure as a catalyst for learning and improvement can help ease the sting of losing a valued employee and allow you to move on to what remains most important: supporting and retaining those who have stayed.

 

With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina