Dear Crucial Skills,
I’m a manager in a tech company that seems to be clueless. While I know unemployment is high, management seems to be oblivious to the fact that we are losing some of our key people to poaching by competitors. We haven’t increased salaries in the past two years and I’ve personally lost three of my best people because our salaries are so far below market. My peers have seen similar losses.
I know HR is sympathetic—but senior management just doesn’t seem to care. We’re losing great people and it’s impeding our ability to get the work done. Should I just give up and cope?
I’m going to assume that you’ve held crucial conversations about this issue with your immediate supervisor and HR. In our thirty years of studying influence, we’ve found the most direct and effective way to bring about change begins with these conversations. However, sometimes influence involves more than talk. Interpersonal influence is efficient and often incredibly effective, but if talk isn’t cutting it, you’ll have to do more to penetrate the status quo.
Let me suggest a couple of options.
1. The influence of data. People who successfully lose weight tend to weigh themselves daily. People who read international newspapers tend to talk more about foreign affairs. The “Gas Wars” of the 1970s began when fueling stations were required to post prices visible to passing motorists.
We each live in a certain “data stream.” The stream we live in brings us certain information. We read certain newspapers, attend certain meetings, receive certain reports, and interact with certain people. These sources of information profoundly affect our behavior. They set our mental agenda—decide what we care about, what we worry about, and what we believe is true.
The problem you’re up against is that your data stream involves a firsthand view of the reality and consequences of staff losses. Senior management’s data stream may not. If, for example, HR is reporting that staff turnover is 5 percent—which is low for your industry—senior management may see this number and assume all is well. According to you, this number obscures more than it reveals. You’re suggesting the quality of the turnover has changed substantially and you need to find a way to reveal that data to senior management. If what you’re saying is correct, then the kind of people who are leaving in that 5 percent are more critical to corporate success than a similar number two years ago. My challenge to you is to:
a. Confirm your assumption. There’s a possibility you are wrong. The turnover you’ve experienced may be atypical across the organization despite what your peers say. Or your perception of salary gaps may be wrong. Find out. Consult with HR—learn more about the data sources they draw from in setting their policy.
b. Change the data stream. There’s a principle in newspaper journalism that the lead point should be the opening sentence of an article. If you’re right about the turnover, influence HR to ensure their reports don’t “bury the lead” and that this data is presented to senior management.
2. The influence of stories. As influential as data is, it will not impel action with the same force as will a compelling anecdote. So in addition to influencing the data stream, arm those who will present the data with a story that illustrates the problem. The presentation may sound a bit like the following:
“The good news is that turnover is at an all-time low. The bad news is that almost all of our turnover is in key positions. Poaching has become an urgent concern. In prior years, ‘critical turnover’ averaged one technical lead per month, recently it has risen to three—a 300 percent increase.”
“Six months ago, for example, we lost Anja. As far as we can tell, she was offered 15 percent more by a competitor, plus a signing bonus. We have interviewed more than 150 candidates since then but haven’t found one qualified to fill Anja’s shoes at our current salary levels. The six-month hiring gap has left us paying overtime at a higher rate to cover her work. Anja is just one example—but is typical of what we’re dealing with across many departments.”
If you want your executives to feel and think as you do, you’ll need them to see what you see. Your challenge is to influence their data stream so they appreciate the reality you’re dealing with. As you do so, do your best to understand their data stream as well. But be warned, spending some time in their data stream may also change how you think and feel!