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Knowledge@Wharton: A Simple Intervention That Can Reduce Turnover

From Knowledge at Wharton: Managers who want to keep employees from quitting should consider reordering their tasks, according to a new paper co-authored by Wharton management professor Maurice Schweitzer. In the largest field study of its kind, Schweitzer and his colleagues found that people are far more likely to quit when given too many difficult assignments in a row, compared with a workflow that is balanced out with easier tasks. Breaking up long streaks of challenging assignments may be one of the simplest ways that managers can reduce employee burnout and boost retention. “Retaining and motivating people is really hard, and there is always difficult work to be done. The insight from this research is that we don’t want to load it all at once,” Schweitzer said. “We do better when we break it up. It shouldn’t be the case where we have one horrible day and get it all over with. Lining up a bunch of difficult things in a row is exhausting and demotivating.” The paper, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was co-authored by Polly Kang, a recent graduate of the Wharton doctoral program, and David P. Daniels, a professor of management and organization at NUS Business School at the National University of Singapore. The authors analyzed nearly 2 million text conversations over five years between 14,383 trained volunteers at a crisis hotline and the people who reached out to them for help. The text conversations, which were randomly assigned to the volunteers, varied in their intensity, with suicide prevention as the hardest kind of conversation. While the content of the conversations influenced the quit rate of volunteers, the data revealed that the order of the conversations mattered even more. Volunteers who experienced long streaks of hard conversations were 22% to 110% more likely to quit. Conversely, breaking up these hard streaks by reassigning tasks to different volunteers would “reduce volunteer quitting rates by 22%, boosting prosocial behavior and likely saving lives,” the authors wrote in the paper. “We actually don’t know as much about quitting as we’d like to,” Schweitzer said. “The broad question is, when do people quit and when do they persist? Is there something about the nature of the work that matters? What’s interesting to me is that there is this relatively simple intervention that could dramatically reduce quitting.” Read more at Knowledge at Wharton.