The Paradox of Commitment

Is employee retention overrated? It almost sounds heretical for an HR guy to write that, but do we sometimes worry too much about retaining our employees in organizations?

Hall et al (2001) describe the paradox of commitment where “people are most able to develop internal commitments and attachments when they have the free choice to leave and choose to stay. To paraphrase the late Fritz Perls: If you love someone, let them go. If they truly love you, they will return. And if they do not, it was not meant to be” (p. 344). So if this is true, do we sometimes disadvantage both our employees and our organizations by gripping too tight to our employees?

The difficulty of having world-class talent in your organization is that top talent will be recruited by other organizations. It is only a matter of time before that talent is wooed by other organizations. But just imagine the liberating feeling of being an employee who gets a job offer every couple months, but who chooses to stay at an organization? She isn’t there because she has to be; she is there because she wants to be. What an amazing employee to have working under you. She will not operate out of fear of losing her job and may actually tell her boss he is wrong when he is wrong. If his fragile ego can’t handle it, oh well. She can take another job offer anytime.

As leaders, we invest a lot in the people who follow us (if we don’t, that’s another issue). It can be disheartening to consider losing that investment to another organization, and so we consciously (and sometimes unconsciously) do everything possible to keep our followers. In doing so, we sometimes smother them, constrain them, and become a little paranoid of them leaving. Paradoxically, trying too hard to keep them will drive them away. Encouraging our top talent to pursue other options may actually keep them. No one said talent management was easy or logical, but leaders who understand this will keep their talent around them.

Hall, D.T., Zhu, G. & Yan, A. (2001). Developing global leaders: Hold on to them, let them go. In William Mobley & Morgan McCall (Eds.). Advances in global leadership. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing.

2 thoughts on “The Paradox of Commitment

  1. Not only are you giving them away but you have no control over where they go..In fact released employees might go directly to your competitors further compounding your losses.

    1. Thanks for the comment! It is true that they may go to your competition, but I’d rather have a team of recruitable stars than a team that no one else would take/want on their team.

      I ask myself when I hire someone if I could promote him/her one day. If I can’t, then they don’t get hired. If they can, and I do hire them, then I run the risk of losing them to a promotion somewhere else if I don’t have the right opportunity available. I’ll take that risk anytime before I lower my standards.

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