By Stuart R. Levine

Published in Forbes

Employees are on the move and they know they have options. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports voluntary job change is increasing, and last year non-retirement voluntary turnover was at 15.5%. A recent Gallup global employee survey reported that 51% of employees said they are actively looking for a new job or watching for openings to find career growth opportunity. Almost two-thirds believe they will likely find a job as good as their current one. For those who do change jobs, 90% move to a new company.

Employees have higher expectations of their work environment today, and retention and attraction of talent is directly related to working in an organization with a healthy and supportive culture – a culture where they feel a sense of purpose, have clarity on their role and how they add value. They want meaningful feedback that builds on their strengths. They need continual learning opportunities to gain new skills and provide career growth.

Leadership is central to creating a healthy work environment. Leaders must be at the top of their game to engage their employees, retain them, and to attract talent. This critical relationship alone accounts for 70% of the variance in team engagement.

Leaders must study their employee interactions. Success-based feedback conversations engage employees, while deficiency-based feedback has the opposite result. Are you focused on the “A-team” only at the expense the B’s and C’s. Do you examine how well a job fits the employee’s strengths and interests? Are you observing your own unconscious biases that diminish team effectiveness? Do you give people guidance to take on more responsibility and to excel which reflects caring for their growth? Do your conversations occur with a regular rhythm?

Psychological studies show that deficiency-focused feedback is largely counterproductive. Focusing on employee shortfalls actually triggers the “fight or flight” neurological mechanism, making learning impossible. It causes the brain to dwell on the deficiency, without forming a picture of what a desired outcome looks and feels like. When behaviors need strengthening, it helps to develop a vision for the future that incorporates the changed behavior and supports the employee’s excellence.

Good leaders take a broad view of the talent they are responsible for cultivating. Numerous studies, including Google’s project Aristotle, show that by focusing only on the “A-team” you can miss the potential in the rest of the team. In a highly functioning team, there is a sense of balance among team members. No one member dominates, and each person feels safe expressing an idea or an opinion. Leaders facilitate everyone being heard and valued.

Gallup found that only about 4 in 10 workers strongly agree that their job description aligns well with the work they are asked to do . Clarity is essential to engagement, and people need clear knowledge of job responsibilities to be held accountable for the results. Furthermore, employees are most engaged when their jobs fit well with their skills and desires. The manager should recognize whether the person’s talents better fit another position. For example, the person may not have the desire or temperament for managing a large team, but may excel in leading small teams or making individual contributions.

Unconscious leadership biases can reduce effectiveness and negatively impact employee engagement. People tend to gravitate to those most like themselves when hiring or choosing a team, even though studies show that diversity of background and experience provide better organizational results. Or, when considering people to step up to a challenge, women and under-represented minorities may be thought of as “not-ready” because they don’t fit a manager’s given stereotype of a leader.

An “A-team” player probably won’t wait for permission to take on a challenge, but others, although they are ready, may not feel comfortable in the spotlight. Many people can be their own worst critics and are afraid to step up and possibly fail. It is the leader’s job to help them gain confidence in their strengths and drive out fear. With the leader’s insightful feedback and mentoring, employees can have the opportunity to grow, thrive and rise to the occasion.

A regular rhythm to leadership feedback conversations is essential for fostering engagement. The most engaged employees have meaningful interactions at least once a week. These often are just ten-minute to half-hour talks that acknowledge what is going well and let the employee and leader stimulate other ways to build success. When employees are successful, leadership should acknowledge it on the spot. This is a powerful intervention that propels further success.

Engaged employees are present emotionally, physically, and psychologically. Their creativity and enthusiasm strengthen the organizational mission. They drive expectations for themselves to higher levels of achievement. The leader’s charge is to create the climate and the culture where people can feel valued, aligned and productive. This is a true test of leadership strength.