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The impact of high staff turnover on company culture

Posted: 30th September 2019

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Dr Cath Bishop
Posted on 30th September 2019 in Olympian insight

Author: Dr Cath Bishop

Drawing on her unique combination of experience, Dr. Cath Bishop delves into the resilience and leadership required to manage staff turnover.

We have all seen the churn of Premier League managers and the lack of upturn in football clubs’ performances as a result.  The same applies across organisations.  If turnover rates are high, the immediate consequences are severe:  loss of valuable knowledge and experience, loss of morale for those left, and loss of belief in the team’s competence and ability to perform.  None of those are quick or easy to replace.

Then at a point when new team members start arriving, they typically encounter a culture without a clear identity or clearly understood collective purpose.  The initial process of connecting and establishing relationships takes time, leaving a culture lacking the vital lifeblood of trust and commitment to a collective vision.  Levels of engagement and productivity start to stutter.

The link between work and sport

Business and sport both need sustainable high-performance cultures – this requires a balance between building on experience, expertise and performance gains to date alongside fresh input from outside the team to keep the culture dynamic.  High staff turnover tips this balance one way and performance suffers as a result.

Whether it’s the Olympic rowing team, a Premier League football club or a business, performance advantages come from investment in the continuing development of their people (NB ‘people’ rather than ‘athletes’ or ‘employees’) over a longer period.  In the business world, staff members who can build on their experience, continue to grow their expertise and see how to add further value through collaboration are similarly crucial to organisations looking to stay competitive, agile and future-ready.

In UK Sport’s bid to sustain world-class performance and find the next marginal gains for Team GB, athlete retention is becoming the new buzzword and priority.  Advances in sports medicine, a focus on wellbeing and better understanding of how to create high-performance cultures and training environments are allowing athletes to extend their careers at the highest level.  An athlete who can sustain a career over two or three Olympiads is immensely valuable.  New athletes require years of investment in support and coaching to reach the top level.  Wasting the investment, you have already made in people who still have further potential makes no sense.  Organisations find themselves in a similar position – recruiting and finding new talent is an expensive and risky business.

A high-performance culture prioritises the growth of its people, combining expertise and experience with ongoing personal development and renewal.  It’s that open, learning culture that feels safe and supportive that is undermined by the experience of and reactions to staff leaving.

In the Olympic rowing team, every rower, whether in their first Olympiad or their fifth, gets out of bed motivated to find a way of making the boat go faster.  This entails a growth mindset from all team members towards exploring new ideas from across the fields of sports science, technology and wellbeing.  That desire for constant improvement drives high performance and is as invaluable in the competitive business world as it is to the world of competitive sport.

The effects of high turnover

High turnover disrupts and destabilises that culture of constant improvement: it starts to feel less safe to experiment in an unstable team environment, it becomes easier not to explore new ways of improving performance, and the missing connection to a collective vision undermines basic motivation.  When teams are starved of the oxygen of a growth mindset and the momentum that comes from that, performance inevitably suffers.

What has helped athletes to extend their careers and how might organisations learn from them?  First, health and wellbeing is a huge part.  Macho sporting environments where athletes were praised for carrying on when injured or when seriously fatigued are falling by the wayside.  Such behaviour only curtails sporting careers and diminishes performance levels.  No athlete would believe that more hours in the gym and being shouted at by a coach is the answer to going faster in their next race – speed and improved performance requires smart training, recovery, trying different things, and learning from past performances within the sporting world and beyond.  The same applies to organisations.

Workplace environment and culture are key.  Scandals across Olympics sports from British cycling to the US gymnastics team have shown that the right environment is crucial if high performance is to be sustained over the longer-term.  The emerging breed of successful coaches, as shown in football through Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Gareth Southgate and Phil Neville, demonstrate a different language, a different style, and a different way of engaging with their players.  They speak a language of support and respect – no more the ranting Brian Cloughs on the touchline, much more the language of support, nurture and trust that we saw from Gareth Southgate at the World Cup last year, where it’s ok for a footballer to go home for the birth of their child during the World Cup.  The style of engagement is changing too.  Players and athletes are people first, and footballers, rowers, cyclists second – such a statement used to be dismissed as being soft or uncommitted.  Now it’s seen as essential to enabling players to rise to the highest levels under the greatest of pressures.   Lastly, the language of performance has spread across sporting pitches and pools over the last twenty years whereby athletes and coaches focus on their performance and what lies within their control, not just winning next Saturday’s match.

Athletes know exactly why they are getting up in the morning, and many teams set goals beyond the result – like the GB women’s hockey team in Rio who wanted to inspire the next generation of hockey players or Barcelona which sees itself as part of the fabric of Catalonia (‘mas que un club’.)  This sense of purpose inspires results.  Staff in organisations with high turnover have often lost sight of why their job matters – the results are then less than inspiring.

Who can resist the opportunity to make the podium at an Olympics?  Who can resist the opportunity to find out what they are capable of in the workplace?  Who can resist the opportunity to make a real impact in the world around them?  The challenge for business leaders is to create an environment where staff are hungry for these opportunities, keen to keep learning and finding new ways of doing things, and working together how they can make the business boat continue to go faster, not jump ship in search of a faster vessel.

Dr. Cath Bishop is Senior Performance Consultant at Will it Make The Boat go Faster. Drawing on her unique combination of experience, Cath understands the resilience and leadership required to manage complex challenges. She leads seminars on topics including resilience, leadership, high performing teams, peak performance and dealing with pressure, and has worked with clients such as Rolls Royce, Coca Cola, Microsoft and many others.

Will It Make the Boat Go Faster? Magazine

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