Think of your mentor. The best manager you’ve ever had. Your favorite high school teacher. Your best friend. What do these people have in common?
They’re all a part of your cheer squad—the folks who want the best for you and are most likely to chime in with much-needed encouragement when you’re tackling major projects or facing obstacles.
And their support tactics might be key to boosting retention of women employees.
According to newly released data from company reviews platform InHerSight and researchers at NC State University, encouragement can be a major decider of whether a female employee will stay or leave an organization, with a whopping 81% of women who report low encouragement being likely to leave their roles or companies in the next 12 months.
“I think the pandemic has really changed, for lack of a better word, the employee value proposition,” said Paul Mulvey, a human resources management professor at NC State’s Poole College of Management. Mulvey is one of the researchers behind the study, alongside professors Leigh Shamblin and Roger Mayer and PhD student James Peters.
Mulvey said the value proposition shift could be because the pandemic’s volatile environment has significantly widened the gap between how much people need encouragement and how much they receive, but additional research would be needed to know for certain. However, “given the Great Resignation and its effects on businesses, it seems like an important topic across the board,” he added. “It’s not just the companies with frontline workers. Everyone seems to be suffering.”
About 900 women participated in the study, selecting a workplace “encourager,” such as a supervisor, manager, peer, or subordinate, to think about while responding. They shared things like how much that person encouraged them to pursue stretch goals, pointed out their strengths, checked in, and had their back in the past year. From those insights, researchers were able to glean just how impactful encouragement can be for women—and that managers are less likely to encourage employees than non-managers, which is important.
Managers are the “first responders” of workplace satisfaction. Employees are most comfortable elevating concerns during 1:1s with their manager, and the manager-managee relationship contributes to psychological safety and an employee’s sense of belonging. But it’s also easily pushed to the wayside.
“If you think about a manager’s job, they’re busy. Many managers have their plates full,” Mulvey said. “They’re probably unaware of how much employees appear to need to be encouraged. They’re more focused on the immediate, so they don’t think encouragement is a priority, but it is down the line, and it keeps feeding into the overwork because, without it, people will continue leaving.”
And women are leaving, especially those in high-ranking positions. In October, McKinsey & Company and Lean In released their annual 2022 Women in the Workplace report, which found that women leaders are leaving their companies at higher rates than ever before. “For every woman at the director level who gets promoted, two women directors are choosing to leave their company,” the report stated. Lack of encouragement might not be the only factor pushing women out the door, but with women reporting high levels of burnout and unmanageable workloads, there’s no question that positivity and recognition are needed.
“This data really makes a powerful statement,” said Mulvey of the encouragement findings. “There’s a strong enough correlation to suggest that it could impact turnover or be an important management tactic.” While many things affect the employee experience, “encouraging employees is an easy fix.”
How to effectively encourage employees
Encouragement is easy, but it needs to be intentional. Clinical psychologist and global thought leader Elizabeth Lombardo said there are two types of external encouragement, passive and active. “Passive encouragers may not be personally invested in your success, but their cheers and applause go a long way in giving you a positive mental state while tackling a challenge,” she said. “Active encouragement, on the other hand, is when the encourager is personally invested in your success. They don’t just cheer you. They also actively provide support and mentoring to ease your way to success.”
Active encouragement is more effective when used by managers, and it includes important components such as active listening, paying attention to employee wins, praising employee progress, and being able to connect the dots between an employee’s skill set and their potential. “It sounds like sincere, specific, feedback about pieces of that challenge that they’ve demonstrated successfully before, highlighting the experience they already have that is necessary to be successful in this new endeavor,” said Marla Cormier, president and founder of Emerging Leader Training, which specializes in talent development and retention and first-time leader success. “It’s paired with support, the offer of help, as they take on the new task.”
Cormier said active encouragement sounds something like this:
Your work on the Charles account helped us close a very complex contract. You were focused, met every deadline, and stayed in constant communication with the client and the team. I know that you’ll demonstrate the same skill and care with this new prospect. What can I do to help you get started?
When you led the quarterly team meeting, you were well prepared and it was clear that you’d reviewed your talking points so that you could present with confidence. I’d like for you to share the same presentation with the executive team so that they can also see how much work you put into this presentation. What can I do to help you prepare?
“The most effective types of encouragement are the ones paired with specific examples of the skills and knowledge the employee has already demonstrated, allowing them to see this new opportunity as one step forward rather than a huge leap,” Cormier said. “And when they know that their leader is there to answer questions, provide additional information, and support them along the way, they know they aren’t going it alone.”
One dose of active encouragement isn’t enough to boost long-term employee satisfaction, however. Like anything, encouragement needs to be a consistent practice in order for it to become a hallmark of a management or leadership style, and for it to be a notable asset to company culture.
And while Mulvey said researchers would like to ask respondents additional questions in order to assess just how far encouragement can go—“Are you paid fairly? Do you receive good feedback? Is empathy enough, or does it have to be encouragement?”—the benefits of prioritizing encouragement far outweigh the costs.
“If it is important, it won’t cost you that much to authentically encourage employees who are important to you,” Mulvey said. Just time and energy. The rest is free.