How to Retain High Performing Employees

19 February, 2018

By Tara Finlay, Cornerstone Talent (UK)

Finding great talent and hiring the best employees is key to every business and vital to the growth and success of every organisation. A study by Boston Consulting Group showed companies that excelled in recruiting experienced 3.5 times mores revenue growth than their peers.

According to high performing employees can be up to 10 times more productive than an average employee. The Human Capital Institute survey showed that retention of high performers is the biggest priority for HR leaders in 2018.

A focus on employee retention strategies is vital for organisations wanting to keep highperformers engaged, motivated and loyal. This means taking time to focus on understanding the people and the behaviours, and identifying the engagement and reward strategies that will support happiness and loyalty. Ideally this is happening at a company level, but every leader has a role to play in the engagement of their teams. It is often cited that employees leave their manager, rather than the company so what can you do as an individual to aid the retention of your top performers?

Your role in engagement

Managers play a key role in shaping the culture of the organisation. Great managers build and develop engaged, high performing teams around them. It is essential to fully understand the impact your style and behaviours have on your team, colleagues and peers. Leaders must take ownership of the engagement of their teams; look at each person individually, understand their strong points and their developmental and motivational needs and respect diversity. Lead by example and model the behaviours that you want to embed into your culture.

We know that compensation is important to all employees, but when looking at the retention of great employees, we need to look beyond the basic expectations and focus on what you can do to differentiate your company from other organisations and make it a place people want to be. What is important when focusing on the retention of your best employees?


It sounds obvious, but every individual performs best when they clearly understand what is expected of them. What may not be so obvious to you as a manager is that often employeesdo not have the clarity that they need. Research undertaken by Gallup in 2017 shows that only one in two employees are confident that they know what is expected of them when they go to work everyday.

Take the time to step into the shoes of each member of your team and walk around in them. Can you see the understanding and alignment of each individual to your expectations? Are you always clear about how you articulate what you expect and what is required? Don’t make assumptions; it never hurts to ask the question to seek confirmation that people are fully aware of what is expected of them and in turn this increases their happiness and their chances of success.

In his book ‘The Purpose Effect’, Dan Pontefract states that purpose is the secret ingredient of the most successful companies. When people believe in their company’s purpose and can clearly articulate how their role connects to that purpose, they achieve better results.

As a manager, you can have a huge influence on making sure your team have a purpose. Engage them in discussions about the mission and vision of the company, and the role that your function plays in achieving that. Drive passion and energy to align team goals to corporate goals; help them draw a line of sight between their work and the client so they can see the impact and importance of their role. Dan Pontefract asserts in his book that ‘Purpose is a better motivator than money. Money, while necessary, motivates neither the best people or the best in people’.


Research by the Great Place to Work Institute shows that trust between managers and employees is the primary defining characteristic of the very best workplaces. Leaders should place high value on understanding how to create a high-trust culture.

How managers behave goes a long way to building a trust environment. Be honest, all the time. Delivering bad news or dealing with a difficult situation can be uncomfortable butemployees deserve honesty and managers gain respect and build trust by being open and transparent.

Treat employees as individuals; seek their input and show humility. Asking for suggestions on how things can be improved or how you can better support them, then following up and taking action promotes trust and loyalty.

The work of Bob Chapman and Raj Sisodia is a thought-provoking source to challenge how you work with others. Their book “Everybody Matters” talks about achieving through Responsible Freedom. This idea comes from the philosopher Peter Koestenbaum and is expressed as two ideas.

  • Freedom: the opportunity to exercise personal choice, to have ownership of the work that you do and the decisions you make
  • Responsibility: ensuring personal choice is exercised with care and concern for other people and the requirements of the organisation

This approach requires two-way trust and clear goals and then empowers people. For this to work, understanding is key. Employees must have a purpose, understand what is expected of them and by then being given independence, they have the opportunity to strive for success with and on behalf of their organisation.


Recognition can be given in a multitude of ways, from a sincere thank you to a monetary award and everything in between. What is key today is considering what types of recognition will drive the greatest engagement and motivation from your high performing staff. In an evolving business environment, it is more important than ever to connect with the workforce in a way that is meaningful to them and be creative in how we reward people.

The pyramid depicting Maslow’s hierarchy of needs puts Esteem and Self-Actualisation at the top of the pyramid, with Self-Actualisation being a growth need. The theory states that all humans need to feel respected; esteem represents the human desire to be accepted and valued by others. Self-actualisation is described as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be.

As a manager, how can you support Esteem and Self-Actualisation with your teams through recognition? If employees believe in themselves and believe that others have confidence in them they will be more engaged and productive. Providing on-going feedback and sincere gratitude to people will support this. Supporting self-actualisation in the workplace goes beyond ordinary recognition practices and moves into providing opportunity and support for individuals to reach their true potential.

In her book “Victory Through Organisation’, Sheila McKnight says ‘high potential individuals are interested in job assignments that are challenging and valuable….because they want to create a track record of documented results. Research from BlessingWhite backs this up, with a 2014 survey of 2000 employees showing that people are increasingly looking for personal development at work not just traditional career advancement (life experience not just work experience).

Do you connect with your team to understand what will enhance their working lives and the environment? Do you know what motivates your employees? Do you know what they want to achieve and understand how you and the organisation can support that? A manager who understands their team will seek out recognition by means of development opportunities. This could be a secondment, a project, mentorship or an opportunity to mentor others.

Achieving Improved Retention

Employee retention strategies can be broad but building foundations for success starts with every manager within an organisation:
 • Ensure every employee understands what is expected of them; Help them to have a purpose aligned with the company, that they can be passionate about every day• Build a trust culture, modelling the behaviours you expect. Be honest, show humility and support ‘Responsible Freedom’
• Treat every employee as an individual. Understand what motivates employees and what they want to achieve. Seek ways to support their needs to create opportunity for the employee and the organisation
• Be forthcoming with recognition and drive a culture where everybody is encouraged to recognise others
• Drive recognition strategies that are meaningful to employees and drive engagement
As you think about how to retain your best employees, always consider the impact that you have first. Your behaviour, communication style, and approach to your team will impact the behaviours that they display. When you consider the broader organisation, are there employee retention strategies that would benefit the business? Use your influence to put this on the company’s agenda and build awareness of the importance of retention to the success of the organisation.

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