5 Strategies for Leading Teams Amid High Turnover

teamwork

Even when you love your job and believe in the work you do, office environments with high staff turnover can dampen those positive feelings.

Perhaps this turnover is related to internal circumstances, such as high stress and long hours, or to external pulls felt by adventurous staff eager to experience new cities and professional challenges. Regardless of the reason for it, high turnover can be mentally (and emotionally) taxing for team leaders.

Between recruiting and training new staff and recalibrating team dynamics, you’re likely expending substantial time and energy that could be better spent devising and driving your team’s strategy.

Working through this particular issue starts with accepting that even the best leaders can’t singlehandedly reverse the course of high turnover. What you can do is take steps to mitigate its effects to keep everyone, including yourself, motivated:

1. Create a social contract

A strong team culture creates a sense of continuity. This culture, defined by shared values, behaviors, and attitudes, can be a guide for newcomers and becomes a familiar tune for you and your team members who are there for the long haul.

Try reinforcing this team culture with a social contract that defines how your team operates. The contract—conveyed verbally or in writing—can include statements like:

  • “Our team consistently takes initiative and shows leadership.”
  • “We remain professional in high-stress periods.”
  • “We are thoughtful and strategic even when working under pressure.”

Use this social contract not only to guide your team but also to offer structure as you share feedback with them. Make it a consistent part of onboarding new staff, as it will help you shape a team identity that remains intact in the face of staff departures.

2. Make onboarding a collective effort

Training new staff requires a substantial time investment; by some accounts, an effective onboarding process takes the better part of a year. You can reduce the burden on yourself by inviting the whole team to contribute.

Ask staff to meet one-on-one with new hires within the first few days of their arrival. Each person should explain his or her role, day-to-day responsibilities, and perspective on the team structure and culture.

Encourage your team to continue these meetings without you. This is their chance to get (and stay) up to speed on the details of work life and day-to-day activities you only have time to gloss over.

3. Plan ahead for departures

It takes time for newcomers to learn the ins and outs of their position: how to use filing systems, order supplies, navigate approval processes, and manage weekly deliverables.

Aim to document this information, along with tricks of the trade each person develops. Don’t just rely on snapshot-in-time transition plans when staff depart. Instead, ask team members to create, and iteratively update, a handbook for each position. Make this a standard part of their work early on. When staff learn something new, they should document and save it in a centralized space.

4. Reframe before you burn out

Building and rebuilding a team every year or two can put you on a path to burnout. You may need to reframe your thinking before this “one step forward, two steps back” pattern gets the best of your drive and energy.

Try not to focus on the time and momentum lost from the rebuilding process. Instead, look at what you gain: exposure to different working styles, skill sets, and perspectives. Over time, calibrating your management style to changing interpersonal dynamics and individuals will shape you into a far more versatile leader.

5. Aim to change only what you can

As a manager, you’ll inevitably brush up against factors that contribute to turnover. You can confront these challenges and aim to create a dynamic, positive work environment, but don’t shoulder the entire burden on your own. Remember that your actions can make a difference, but there’s rarely going to be a silver bullet solution.

Check in with your team and ask directly what keeps them engaged and happy at work each day—and by all means, convey their feedback to executive-level management.

In other words, try to change what you can, but remember, no single person can halt turnover.

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Do you have experience working in environments with high turnover? How do you cope?

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Jen Bogle is a communications specialist who writes for Idealist Careers to share her thoughts on leadership, relationship building, and career development with other social-impact professionals.
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