Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Influence

Stopping Brain Drain

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?


Dear Exodus,

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!

Best wishes,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

Image for

What's Your Style Under Stress?

Discover your dialogue strengths and weaknesses with this short assessment.

Take Assessment

Image for

Subscribe Now

Subscribe to the newsletter and get our best insights and tips every Wednesday.


Image for

Ask a Question

From stubborn habits to difficult people to monumental changes, we can help.

Ask a Question

9 thoughts on “Stopping Brain Drain”

  1. mike

    Your statement “The six-month hiring gap has left us paying overtime at a higher rate to cover her work.” surprised me. Professionals in high tech do not receive overtime. Slack would be picked up by coworkers. This overburdens those left increasing their stress causing schedules to slip due to conflicting priorities and lack of resources. This can possibly increase the rate of departure or just slowly “pour off the cream” if projects are not impacted senior management can only ask “what’s the problem.”

  2. Patricia Gonzales

    A false public face where turnover are concerned can be fabricated as well. By “restructuring” you don’t see personel lost during position consolidations and so the “data” can be tainted whether purposeful or not.

  3. bean sagof

    “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.”

    certainly when we’re younger we’re forced to live in a well-edited data stream, but this quote represents an error i’ve seen vitalsmarts make before: they rarely distinguish an adult (who takes responsibility for that stream’s impact (i.e. for their perspective)) from a child (who does not.) we tailor our stream and those are choices made with intended consequences. if the senior managers are worth their salt, then they’ve considered the alternatives and have decided against them.

    in this case mr. grenny is aware of the data that should have streamed (assuming previous crucial convos) and also addresses the change in perspective that can happen when you change your stream (to that of the senior managers). it’s just trust for senior management’s position that lets one off the hook, although in a perfect world one’s input would make a positive difference.

  4. Jim Nowlen

    I agree with others about Overtime pay for many of our core talent. At least in my organization, we don’t pay overtime. Most of us just work extra time to make up the deficit.

    But, it is true that changing the ‘data stream’ can have a profound effect. In our organization, shortly after the economy crashed, we decided to put all projects on hold. Many of them had been funded and IT equipment had been purchased and brought online for the effort. In many cases, the annual cost to continue duplicate support far exceeded the cost to finish the projects. Executives were of the impression that support costs for older hardware; that being replaced; was insignificant. We took the time to gather the actual costs related to all of the older equipment to present to our executive team. Armed with that information, they were able to fund some of the dropped projects with the savings we would achieve from retiring our older infrastructure. Further, they created a term, “The Snowplow effect” to describe the cost of duplicate infrastructure. The the long term impact is that we’ve changed the corporate culture. Bottom line, we changed our executives data stream to influence our corporate bottom line.

  5. Marty

    It is also important to determine whether your staff are leaving for the “same” position or if they are going for a promotion or a job with a different scope. My times leaders don’t have all of the facts surrounding this and the salaries and jobs aren’t true comparisons.

  6. Joseph Grenny

    Excellent example, Jim. I think we sometimes assume executive omniscience and don’t realize they are as subject to uninformed opinions as the rest of us. That’s why we who work below them in organizations often attribute malicious motive to decisions that may have simply been ill-informed. There’s a difference between being evil and being ignorant. You assumed the latter and exerted influence as a result. @Jim Nowlen

  7. Joseph Grenny

    Thanks–I’ll have to update my mental database. Five years ago I worked with a large IT group (about 3000 people) where overtime for nonmanagement was required–these were nonexempt employees. But your point about the other effects of understaffing/turnover are even more crucial to document and use to augment executives’ data stream as well.@mike

  8. Joseph Grenny

    Thanks for the perspective, Bean. I think I’m less sanguine than you about people’s consciousness of the unintentional design of their data stream. A fascinating study by Dean Karlan at Yale showed significant changes in voting behavior in a Virginia election after households were simply provided a free copy of either the Washington Post (liberal) or Washington Times (conservative) newspapers for a couple of months prior to the election. If people are changing their voting behavior dependent upon what paper is dropped on their doorstep, is it possible we’re not as conscious of the unintentional “design” of our data streams? I suspect more than we think. What do you think?@bean sagof

  9. Lindsay Wagner

    Joseph, I appreciate your specific examples of how to express the data for maximum listening and influence. While you do suggest more work on the part of the person who’s facing the problem he inquires about, it’s a good reminder that when we want something to change it takes time and focus to present our view (as well as doing the research for accuracy) in a way that compels others to pause and take notice. Again, the specific examples are of great assistance.

Leave a Reply

Get your copies
The ideas and insights expressed on Crucial Skills hail from five New York Times bestsellers.


Take advantage of our free, award-winning newsletter—delivered straight to your inbox