Retaining Your Top Talent: The Business Case for Relational Intelligence

Relationally intelligent leaders practice these five essential skills that lead to greater levels of employee engagement, job satisfaction and employee retention.

The Great Resignation, or the Great Realignment as it is now being called, which was triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, is one of the most important challenges companies are facing in 2022. According to Labor Department data, more than 5 million people left their jobs voluntarily in January, a record high in nearly two decades of tracking.

Employees across all industries have more options and opportunities than ever before. This great exodus should alarm business leaders largely because it’s not due to a single, solvable problem. The pandemic triggered a complex turning point in employee sentiment. Employees are quitting their jobs citing insufficient pay, poor benefits, and most importantly lack of fulfillment in their work. Retaining top talent is now one of the most critical priorities for organizations.

Even before the pandemic, many employees have felt left behind by businesses that treated them as assets to be used and discarded. They felt disconnected from their workplaces and dissatisfied with the psychological contract between them and their employers. This stems from many companies not putting people and culture first. It also relates to a lack of focus on building organizations based on utterly human qualities: connection, empathy, respect and empowerment.

For employees to remain engaged and loyal to their organizations, they need to feel that they are part of something greater than just the work that they do. The best leaders make the intentional choice to build strong partnerships with their people. They understand the importance of human connection, something that has become a lost art the last two years of the pandemic. Senior leaders who understand this, practice what I call relational intelligence.

Relational intelligence is the ability to successfully connect with people and build strong, long-lasting relationships. It enables leaders to build cultures that are inclusive, stimulating and exciting to work in. It helps employees effectively engage and interact with people from different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. This has become even more important than ever as organizations refocus and commit to efforts around diversity, equity, and inclusion. Relationally intelligent leaders make it a priority to serve their people. They understand that driving results and strong financial profitability starts with empowering their people.

Our research at Bandelli & Associates has found that relationally intelligent leaders practice five essential skills that lead to greater levels of employee engagement, job satisfaction, and employee retention.  Let’s look at what it takes to truly empower people and keep them committed, inspired and passionate about working for your organization:

1) Establishing Rapport and 2) Understanding Others: Build Connections with Your People

Employees are engaged and empowered when they feel a strong connection to their leaders. They stay committed when they feel they can make a real contribution to the organization. To do this, get to know all the members of your team as individuals. Make it a priority to meet with them one-on-one (in-person or virtually) and ask them a lot of questions. Find out what their goals and ambitions are. Ask them what they want to learn and how they want to grow. Find out what work they want to be exposed to across your organization. While it is important to do a lot of listening, take the opportunity to share some things about yourself. A team member might be interested to learn about your journey as a leader and some of the experiences that shaped your professional life. This is one of the best ways to show up as a genuine and authentic leader. And it’s ok to get personal too. Share information about your life and ask them about theirs. Learning about your peoples’ hobbies, interests, and life outside of work offers opportunities to bond and form deeper connections.

Getting to know your people shouldn’t focus just on the conversations you have with them. Take time to observe your people in action. This used to be easier when we weren’t working remotely but you can still do it today. Join them in some of their team meetings and video conference calls. Make note of how they approach work and the partnerships with their peers. Watch for what sparks their interest, what makes them passionate, and how they impact others. Provide consistent and regular feedback. Employees want to feel invested in. They want to know that you care about their professional growth and development. Relationally intelligent leaders invest and nurture the relationships they have with their people and teams. This is the best way to make people feel important and that they are doing something meaningful in their work.

3) Embracing Individual Differences: Inclusivity Matters

As a leader, it is critical to set the tone that diversity, equity and inclusion matters. Embracing peoples’ differences means understanding and accepting that people might be different from you, and those differences, be they gender, ethnicities, race, sexual orientation, religion or socioeconomic background, are what makes teams strong. When you accept people who are different from you, you can more effectively communicate with them. This helps to strengthen the quality of relationships that you have with your employees. So, make every member of your team feel valued, important, and appreciated.

Encourage diversity of thought. This is the true essence of creating powerful and dynamic organizational cultures. You want people on your team who think differently. Research in the field of industrial-organizational psychology supports this. Scholars have found that when leaders make inclusivity a priority, it leads to greater levels of communication, collaboration, and teamwork. If you want to retain great talent, make it a priority to build inclusive cultures for your people and teams.

4) Developing Trust and 5) Cultivating Influence: Empower Everyone on Your Team

Even before the pandemic, many senior executives faced challenges around leading global teams. Today, for many people, working from home has become the norm. Things will stay like this moving forward as many companies embrace a hybrid model that combines some time in the office with some time working from home. Successfully leading a dispersed team requires getting everyone on the same page. This is where developing trust becomes critical. Do you have common values and guiding principles that people can rally behind? Do you have a core shared purpose and vision that provides direction and meaning to your people? Frequent targeted communication is key for unifying your team members around a common goal.

Share news on progress towards major objectives and KPIs. Communicate to your people what the competition is doing. Highlight key milestones and celebrate the victories along the way. Create a time and space for people to vent and share their concerns—personally and professionally. Remember the lines between work and personal life have become more blurred during the last two years. Give your people opportunities to talk about how they are doing. This is the best way to display empathy and compassion for your people.

Empowering your people starts with your ability to have a positive impact on their lives. Do your team members know that you care about them and their professional development? Do you make them feel like their work contributes to the greater good? This has become increasingly important to millennials and Gen Z employees. Younger workers today are fully invested in their own growth and career trajectory. They care about having meaning and purpose in the work that they do. This presents an opportunity for companies willing to invest in campaigns, programs, and the requisite infrastructure to highlight and showcase growth opportunities at their organizations. If there are clear paths for career development outlined for workers, your ability to retain talent increases dramatically.

The Bottom Line

Relational intelligence is what all leaders need to develop as we move into a new era of work. The employees of today care about more than just title, pay, and compensation. They want to know that their work has meaning. They want leaders who will intentionally invest in their growth and development. And they want that personal human connection—something that has been lost during the last two years of the pandemic. Something that we desperately need to get back so that we can better lead our people, teams, and organizations into the future.


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