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These are the workers you especially don’t want to lose (and how to get them to stay)

A marketing leader at Ingram Micro North America maintains that retention strategies aimed at stopping the bleed or keeping the top brass fail to grasp what’s at least as scary.

These are the workers you especially don’t want to lose (and how to get them to stay)
[Photo: Reza Estakhrian/Getty Images]

Everywhere you look, the specter of the Great Resignation looms large. Executives, navigating a business climate of profound transformation, are watching some of their most trusted employees abandon ship.

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Mostly, they’re keenly aware of the problem, of the record number of quits, and the long list of grievances cited by exiting workers: burnout, unequal work/life balance, a lack of growth opportunities, as well as lack of fair recognition.

And yet, as cognizant as most corporate leaders are, retention strategies aimed at stopping the bleed or keeping the top brass fail to grasp what’s at least as scary as a mass exodus or watching the office’s preeminent superstars depart. Rather, it’s the prospect of letting the organization’s more unsung heroes slip away. These uber-talented individuals escape attention even as they fuel success.

These silent stars are known (or not known) for being great observers and honest assessors, self-starters willing to pursue goals that are less visible, and for not actively seeking any acknowledgment. Still, they’re not totally indifferent to being constantly overlooked. And with 74% of employees feeling they deserve more recognition, it’s the silent stars who are the most easily forgotten at the highest price.

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As remote work only encourages the tendency to neglect silent stars, and the retention crisis shows no signs of easing, it’s become more critical than ever for managers to identify these individuals and to understand their needs and motivations. Moreover, in a labor market that’s shifting decidedly in favor of workers, actively seeking to give silent stars what they’re looking for becomes paramount.

Here’s a look at what organizations must do to retain these all-important contributors.

Identify your silent stars

Managers can’t wait on silent stars to reveal themselves. That’s because at the heart of teams everywhere there exist core members who don’t concern themselves with publicizing their wins, or by nature refrain from identifying themselves. Oftentimes these persons don’t seek to follow a conventional path up the company ladder. So it becomes imperative for team leaders to proactively search out these silent stars.

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There are a number of ways to actively unearth those flying beneath the radar. First, leaders can closely map and analyze their workers’ informal networks. A number of new tools allow managers to assess their team’s communications to find which employee others regularly go to for guidance. Your company’s hidden gems tend to act as informal leaders and influencers among their colleagues. They’re likely to stand out for the number of people they’re in contact with and for how quickly they respond to emails.

A crowdsourcing approach can also be very helpful. Managers should systematically speak with people across the organization, asking them to nominate peers who possess particular talents. The next step is to interview those team members who receive the most nominations, with an aim towards exploring these strengths and where they’re able to add value.

As you conduct your search, it’s important to take stock of what’s perhaps prevented you from noticing these low-profile overachievers. In other words, assess your biases in light of your findings. If you’ve interviewed 50 team members about who they trust and respect, cross-reference those numbers against the conclusions reached through your organization’s more conventional annual review scores.

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Ultimately, the objective is to search where you may have not searched before and to deploy different tactics in doing so. In digging you’ll not only find the silent stars but learn about particular blind spots in your own evaluation processes.

Get to know the quiet achievers

If you can identify your overlooked performers, the bridge to connect with, support, and retain them is built through honest conversation. If understanding your customer is important to you, knowing your silent stars’ needs, wants, and goals should be prioritized equally.

Once you spot particular team members, schedule monthly or quarterly conversations to ask about their current projects, show empathy and understanding, and above all ask lots of questions.

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Leaders can gain a better feel for what makes this element of their team tick with these conversations. Frequently, silent stars are willing to work long and hard to achieve even the most thankless tasks. Without acknowledgment, they’re driven to give themselves to what needs to be done day in and day out. However, for some of them, this anonymity can take its toll, causing the best and brightest to disengage. In their conversations, leaders should ask pointed questions about whether this person believes they’re under-recognized and how that affects them. Straight answers might not be forthcoming, but a good leader can read between the lines.

An organization’s unsung stars are also often those who, for whatever reason, haven’t sought out the standard advancement path. They may be, for example, less aware of available growth opportunities, preoccupied with other family matters, or even under the assumption that their hard work will ultimately come to light on its own. None of this is to say, however, that many quiet heroes aren’t hungry for career growth. Managers should therefore ask about their long- and short-term career goals, and about whether they have an interest in leading a team. Ask about what strengths and skills they possess that are under-utilized in their current role. To later form a plan for how to help, ask about areas they find to be particularly challenging.

Through the process of discovering these employees’ needs, leaders can also learn what fuels these needs and goals. Often less recognized by virtue of being self-motivated, silent stars are often among the most driven. Leaders thus should inquire into what they enjoy most and least about their work, what they’re most proud of, and what keeps them going.

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When leaders take the time to understand these core team members and their significant contributions, they need to make certain that they’re engaging them with curiosity rather than judgment. Allot the time needed, leave the laptop closed, and listen actively.

Give them what they want (even when they didn’t ask for it)

With over half of American workers considering quitting, it stands to reason that companies will form broad, comprehensive strategies to keep everyone they can. The needs of high-profile employees, and the most vocal, are frequently of foremost concern.

But those leaders who make it a priority to uncover the hidden heroes need to listen. And if leaders listen, they’ll find that their quiet performers often match up with one of two different personas.

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Rock stars are independent-minded team members consistently doing great work with little or no oversight. They’re those employees to whom colleagues turn to help, and to whom you turn when you need to rest assured something will get done well. As exceptional as they are, however, they’re also much less interested in career advancement.

Rising stars are equally talented and equally reliable, but distinct for their eagerness, speedy turnaround times, and their desire for recognition and career advancement.

Depending on where they fall on this spectrum, efforts to meet their needs will be guided by an understanding of two things. The first is a desire for recognition. Rock stars especially are motivated by acknowledgment and encouragement. Managers should seek out opportunities to praise them publicly, whether through employee recognition programs, positive feedback on calls and emails, or even bonuses. As many of these employees’ wins may often take the form of less tangible, less visible achievements, be inventive with awards for more atypical performance, offering accolades for quality control, problem-solving, global collaboration, or innovation.

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The second is leadership and growth opportunities. Rising stars will greatly value mentorships, the chance to shadow current leaders, and ample Q&A moments with higher-ups. Managers will also find that keeping them engaged is very much a matter of finding the right time and context for acknowledging their great work. Leaders can aim to praise them in newsletters, in handwritten notes, or in the presence of executives. Occasionally, even asking an executive to mention this person during a meeting can make a world of difference.

Ultimately, efforts to keep silent stars engaged will be successful when they come from a sincere hope to make their work meaningful. Find them and find what it is that renews their determination and builds on their connection to the company. Even when they don’t show themselves, show them they matter.


Andrea Short is a member of the Global Executive Marketing Leadership team at Ingram Micro.

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