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The economic playing field is much more volatile than it was 20 years ago and that's created a generation of workers today who view their roles as temporary.

Workers see their jobs as stepping stones to something better, so they're always looking ahead to the next opportunity. Or they feel that their current position could be eliminated at any moment, and that creates instability and anxiety. It's a huge challenge for corporate executives to lead and retain employees who are in these frames of mind.

Employees who consciously – or unconsciously – accept that their work is temporary are more prone to think about where they are going versus where they are right now. And that's not productive for any business.

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One driver is fear, which can be real or perceived. Leaders should know how this thinking can influence employees' decisions to stay or leave, regardless of their satisfaction level with their current job.

Leaders who want to retain critical talent should keep in mind that both parties keep a mental scorecard of each other's performance that ultimately defines their perception of value.

Human behaviour is influenced by reciprocity – when one person does something for another, they expect something in return. If what they expect does not happen, they will be less likely to do something for the other person in the future.

In an employee-employer relationship, reciprocity influences how both parties tabulate each other's mental scorecard.

Let's take a look at how the mental scorecard might work. Jill believes she has done 98 per cent of her assignments well, some above and beyond the call of duty. However, because she was dealing with the illness of her mother recently, she whipped off her latest report, which was rife with errors. That left her boss questioning her skills and commitment to her job.

I call this the 98-2 theory. The 2 per cent outweighs the 98 per cent and ends up defining Jill's value to the company. If she perceives this as an injustice – she was caring for her sick mother – it can negatively affect her mental scorecard and her commitment to her employer, as well as the employer's commitment to Jill.

The key to psychologically engaging employees is to understand that human beings are fallible and more sensitive to failures than successes. When an employee senses that their real or perceived failure is getting more focus than their many successes, this causes strain.

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Once this occurs, the employee's psychological connection to the employer can be damaged. As a result, the employee may start to believe that their role is now temporary and will start the process of mentally moving on, and may actually start looking for a new job.

Leaders who pay attention to the psychological health of employees and the level of strain they are under will be better able to build trust and long-term loyalty. Cut an employee some slack during a difficult time and you'll get it back in spades.

Influencing engagement

Influencing human behaviour often comes down to two approaches: the stick or carrot. Stick leaders use fear, assumptions and pettiness to gain compliance, all of which build long-term resentment. They talk at employees with the belief that there is only one side: theirs.

Carrot leaders remove fear. They have a safe, open approach with their employees and talk with them in order to understand their positions. Here are some tips to ensure you're the latter kind of leader.

Discuss your mental scorecard with your employees; don't assume you know the score and don't avoid discussions about these issues. Be clear on what you feel employees have done that deserves recognition. Be willing to say thank you for a job well done and equally willing to change what's appropriate.

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Pay attention to reciprocity; it's a powerful motivator. Whatever you give, you'll get back in one form or another. When an employee does good work, acknowledge it in the moment. Authentic positive feedback can influence employee commitment.

Every leader has a blind spot which, if not discovered, may hurt employee engagement. For example, a manager talks to the same two employees every morning about sports. What appears harmless may be perceived as favouritism. Managers need to be mindful of air time and share it.

Employees who trust and respect their leaders will be more open and approachable when there's good news or bad. Leaders who truly care and are committed to fairness are seldom surprised when an employee chooses to stay or leave.

Bill Howatt is the president of Howatt HR Consulting and founder of TalOp, in Kentville, N.S. Website: www.howatthr.com

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