The great churn

The typical tools of employee retention -- raises, promotions and perks -- are unlikely to address the anxiety created by the confluence of economic reality and technical culture

If the economy avoids a double-dip recession, I think that we are poised to experience what may seem like a sudden churn of employees, sort of like an industrywide game of musical chairs. But it shouldn't come as a surprise. The pressures have been building for years.

The pressure has resulted from the confluence of economic reality and two distinct characteristics of technical culture. It is tied up with our collective devotion to progress and freedom.

Most of us who have chosen to devote our work lives to technology have a deep-seated faith in progress and a dedication to the idea that change can improve lives. We are compelled to find "problems" and invent "solutions," to see a future that does not exist and to create the technology that brings it into existence. We drive and accept these changes because we feel that in many if not most cases, the benefits of progress outweigh the costs of transformation.

But progress has been hard to come by in most IT organizations for the past few years. Retrenchment is more common. As the economy has stalled, projects have been canceled, new technologies put on hold, systems consolidated and staff laid off. We've been trying to do more with less. So, collectively, we don't have a sense that we are progressing.

But progress is not merely a collective phenomenon; it is also an individual one. As a group, we work to create change, but we also harbor the desire for personal progress, to transcend our own circumstances. And retrenchment also offers few opportunities for personal advancement. There are few chances to get meaningful promotions or to work on new technologies or systems. And for most people, pay has stagnated or worse.

So there's a general sense of frustration, and with that comes a desire to move on, to find somewhere where progress is taking place.

With the economy the way it is, not too many people are quitting their jobs to look for better ones. The need for relative security outweighs the desire for progress. So while anyone with a job probably feels grateful at some level, that doesn't prevent them from also feeling trapped.

And the sense of being trapped runs afoul of another important virtue in technical culture, the idea of freedom. As a group, technical people believe in the power of freedom -- freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of association and just about any other freedom you can think of. So being trapped by economic circumstances is a significant issue.

This combination of feeling both frustrated and trapped is much more powerful than the sum of its parts. This doesn't mean that people don't like their jobs or managers, just that they are feeling pressured to move on. If over the next few months the economy continues to improve and the IT job market expands, this pressure is likely to be vented as people scramble to escape their feelings of stagnation and entrapment.

In other words, no matter how well you have treated people over the past couple of years, your staff, especially your best people, may now harbor a nearly irresistible urge to move on that is just waiting for an opportunity to be expressed.

The typical tools of employee retention -- raises, promotions and perks -- are unlikely to address the anxiety created by the confluence of economic reality and technical culture.

To combat the coming of the great employee churn, you will have to appeal to the same yearnings that gave birth to the discontent. People who stay will see an exciting future and share a sense of relief over surviving a difficult past.

The sense of stagnation and entrapment must be replaced by a vision of progress and the freedom to leave accompanied by a more powerful desire to stay, to be a part of the opportunities to come.

Paul Glen is a consultant who helps technical organizations improve productivity through leadership, and the author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks (Jossey-Bass, 2003). You can contact him at

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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