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Frustrated team dealing with the loss of a high performer

Sarah Lessire

Writer, Culture Amp

When you lose a high performer (at Culture Amp we call them “high-performing employees”, as we see performance as a fluid state), your team, and sometimes even your entire organization, feels the pain of that loss. High-performing employees lead teams in many ways. They do great work, pick up the slack, and set an example that boosts the entire team’s performance. If what they say about the 80-20 rule is true, then we could assume that the top 20% of your people – high-performing go-getters – produce 80% of the work. And losing even one of your best employees can have a big impact. 

The weight of losing top talent

Regrettable attrition refers to a form of voluntary turnover that translates to the attrition of high-performing, high-potential employees. Of course, turnover is high in many fast-growth organizations, and most teams have come to expect it. However, regrettable attrition tends to impact teams’ workflow and morale more heavily. 

While every instance of voluntary turnover has an effect on your organization and teams, in some cases, those effects can be positive. For example, that particular employee may have been difficult to work with, or barely meeting performance standards. This kind of turnover may cause minimal disruption, or even result in your organization breathing a sigh of relief.

On the other hand, regrettable attrition can cause significant challenges for your team, including gaps in skills and knowledge, increased workloads, decreased morale and confidence, and even interpersonal conflict. It can be difficult to know what to do when one of your best employees resigns, but there are steps you can take to minimize the effects.

Here are a few best practices you can use to soften the blow and cope with the loss of a high-performing employee.

Communicating the employee’s resignation

No one likes change. Beyond the fact that a team’s performance will likely drop while experiencing regrettable attrition, the team’s morale is also likely to tank, especially if the employee that's departing was well-loved. Your team members’ mental and psychological states of mind are just as important as the new state of their workflows and resources.

To effectively communicate new expectations and plans to handle this change, there are three fundamental skills that managers should develop:

It’s important to remember that your team has just lost a trusted, respected team member. This can cause sadness, anxiety, and even grief, so your team members need to know you care. By keeping employees in the know, managing any conflict or concerns that might arise, and giving clear and personal feedback, you can provide a source of stability, vision, and empathy for your team throughout the transition.

Managing and redistributing the workload 

Once the team’s feelings and concerns have been expressed and heard, it’s time to get to work. Yes, your all-star employee has left, but the world hasn’t stopped turning. There are likely some alternative ways to arrange for your team to get the most out of the situation. Since they’re already going through change, this might even be a good time to reassess the actual structure of the team to make sure you're using the most effective model.

We believe that every team has to reform in order to perform, and go through the four stages of team formation: forming, storming, forming, and performing.

Once you’ve defined the new team structure, you’ll need to understand how project management will be handled in this new team.

First, start by assessing each person’s unique skills, strengths, and career trajectory as part of the overall team composition. Is there one person who’s more task-oriented? Does one of them have a knack for people and communication? Don’t forget to think long-term: You can examine each person’s growth goals and potential for leadership to help you optimize your team’s responsibilities for today and tomorrow.

Second, you need to analyze the work that needs to be done. Now that the team has a new composition of skills, strengths, and development goals, address whether each team member should be handling the work they currently have on their plates, shifting responsibilities when it makes sense, and creating opportunities for them to take on new projects.

Replacing employees with the right skills

Beyond balancing the current workload among your team members, you might need to think about bringing in a replacement. But we caution against trying to find your lost employee’s doppelganger. Looking for this fictitious twin would not only be a frustrating task but a misled endeavor, as you could end up passing on otherwise exceptional candidates. One person may be good at a broad range of tasks while another may specialize and focus on a few specific skills. When you think of the high performer who recently left the team, do you understand the skills this person possessed and how their skills benefited the work your team now has in front of them? Are some of those skills redundant amidst the team? Are some skills crucially missing from the team? 

Before you post the new job description, make sure to analyze the work that needs to be done and ask for your team members’ feedback on what the new job description should include. There might be a mismatch between the work that needs to be done and the old job description, or perhaps some new needs or shifts to the role you should consider. Your team will likely have important insights on which skills and characteristics made the last person such a valuable team member, and what the day-to-day reality of the role requires. 

Next, consider this feedback in light of your long-term business strategy. How do your present needs compare with what your organization might need tomorrow?

In a recent report from IBM, researchers emphasized the importance of understanding which skills are most important. With digital technology disrupting many jobs, what’s true of a given job today may not be true in a year or two, so remember to hire for the future, rather than for today.

We get it: you’re now left with a very long list of considerations for your replacement hire, and you might not be able to find a candidate who meets all of them. If that’s the case, we would recommend looking for one who shows a high willingness to learn and develop those skills over time.

Upskilling employees to fill the gaps

This year’s Global CEO Survey from PwC argues that upskilling is one of the most important things leaders can do. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is currently taking place – and effectively erasing jobs – as the impact of artificial intelligence and machine learning only continues to grow. In a survey, CEOs report that there are four key forces driving their upskilling efforts:

  • Increasing job automation
  • Decreasing talent availability
  • Decreasing mobility and skilled labor
  • Aging talent

These forces are giving rise to what the World Economic Forum calls the jobs of tomorrow, making it increasingly vital for leaders to help their people upskill quickly. Keeping this in mind will be handy when you’re trying to minimize the fallout of regrettable turnover.

So, what can you do as a manager to help your teams fill skills gaps and grow? These tips from LifeLabs Learning can help:

  • Make the commitment to learning clear from day one of the transition
  • Give employees the flexibility to choose the area they want to develop grow in (see how Culture Amp does it)
  • Measure the success of your programs

By setting a clear vision, providing the right level of autonomy and support, and using data to make continuous improvements, you’ll not only help your team fill in the gaps left by a high performer, but also empower them to surpass expectations and reach new heights.

Losing good employees isn't the end: Equip your team to thrive

Losing a good employee is never a pleasant experience, but you’re not powerless. There are steps you can take to reduce the negative impact and strengthen your team in the process. By communicating openly, distributing the workload, choosing the right replacement, and upskilling your whole team, you’ll be able to steer your team through the transition while building the trust, confidence, and positivity necessary to keep your team engaged and productive. 

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