Retaining Your “Hidden Middle”


When you think about your efforts to engage and motivate your team, do you find that the bulk of your attention gets absorbed by outliers? In her article Rewarding the Hidden MiddleDebra Jerome, chief human resources officer at Witt/Kiefferexplains: “Most organizations spend a majority of their time and effort focusing on the star performers or employees with performance issues – the top and bottom 10 percent, let’s say. This leaves a very large majority of employees in the middle of the organization, the 80 percent, hidden and relatively unacknowledged.”

Jerome further defines employees who might be among this middle group: “These are employees who come to work every day and do exactly what is expected of them. They might be employees who are working remotely or in departments that keep them isolated from others.. .yet are still performing relatively quietly and at a high level.”

Jerome describes diligent employees who make themselves easy to manage who may be among the “hidden middle.” Undoubtedly, not all employees who comprise this group are high performers; There are certainly those who do what is expected of them and little more. Still, the “hidden middle” represents a strong talent pipeline for a manager to cultivate.

Jerome outlines several ways to reward and engage the “hidden middle.” In addition to recognizing the professionals who comprise this group, groom these employees and develop a retention strategy for them. Harnessing their potential can yield concrete benefits.

The Cost of Turnover
In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Andrew Chamberlain explains: “Replacing an employee who quits costs, on average, 21 percent of their annual pay. While it’s tempting to dismiss turnover as a fact of life in today’s fast-moving job market, new research shows otherwise. Many reasons employees jump ship are surprisingly simple, and business leaders who don’t ask why workers want to go may be unnecessarily losing people who are expensive to replace.”

The “hidden middle” has tremendous capacity. Think of how much value they add because of their reliability and the depth of their institutional knowledge. If you don’t court these employees, other departments, institutions, or recruiters may. A manager’s job is always hectic, so it can be hard to imagine strategizing ways to improve an experience for employees who are already fully functional.

But managing a job search and training new staff people is much more labor intensive than keeping your current team engaged and motivated. So making every effort to retain and refine the talent trove you already have may save you work in the future.

The Price of Stagnation
The staff members who comprise your “hidden middle” are not going to exist in a holding pattern forever. They likely have their own reasons for remaining largely self-motivated; maintaining their telecommuting status by working independently and diligently, for example, may afford them a balance they need. And this may keep them satisfied for a time. But if you want to keep them, helping them to locate a viable trajectory on your team and in your division is a good way to do so.

Dr. Chamberlain notes: “One of the drivers of turnover is easy to overlook: allowing workers to stagnate in their current role. Even after controlling for pay, industry, job title, and many other factors, we find workers who stay longer in the same job without a title change are significantly more likely to leave for another company for the next step in their career.”

If you want to keep these professionals motivated, they need to know that management recognizes their potential and is willing to endorse their talent by extending increased opportunities.

Dr. Chamberlain further explains: “Candidates who have stagnated in roles for a year or more are statistically more likely to be receptive to recruiter inquiries than candidates who are rapidly climbing their company’s career ladder.”

Discuss Their Trajectories
Growth opportunities may be limited. Perhaps as a manager, you don’t have the resources to offer promotions. Perhaps that’s why these employees came to comprise this middle group to begin with – they settled there after they advanced as much as possible.

But you don’t want your direct reports to feel as though they have merely “settled” for their current roles. You want them to feel vibrant, needed, and engaged. So how can you achieve this? If you don’t have advancement opportunities to extend, you can discuss your direct report’s ambitions so that you know how they would like to grow. Then mentor them or tap into your network of colleagues and connect them with a seasoned mentor.

One of the perks of university employment is the cultural emphasis on education. Personnel tend to be receptive to mentoring and professionally supporting their colleagues. Access to educational opportunities is also a rich benefit for most staff. Encourage your team to pursue educational opportunities that may help them to explore and pursue their personal trajectories.

Assure your team members, too, that they have a champion in you who recognizes their professional value. Impact their experience however you can so they feel neither “hidden” nor “middle.”

Impact What You Can Control
Dr. Chamberlain summarizes: “Employee turnover is a costly quandary for employers. Our research shows that employers are partly in control of turnover, and that there are clear solutions to reduce it. To better retain employees, set a clear career path for employees, pay them competitively, and cultivate a healthy workplace culture.”

There are some parts of this equation that you may not be able to impact as much as you would like. But there’s also a lot to work with here. Aim to focus on what you can impact to nurture those in the “hidden middle,” and you may find that they become your future high performers.

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