News & Media

Retail Insights Series: Five Leadership Behaviors to Help You Win the War on Retail Talent

Date Published: March 3, 2023

For decades, retailers have been tapping into a seemingly bottomless reservoir of talent. Sure, there was frequent turnover, but when one front-line employee left, all you had to do was casually dip into the pool to find three more.

Now, drought has hit. Today, retailers who continue to take a casual attitude toward acquiring and retaining talent will be disappointed.

The water-level in the talent tank has dropped to shocking levels, and those people who are interested in retail jobs have high expectations of their employers. Like employees in other sectors, they’re calling for flexible hours, work that feels personally meaningful, and wages that keep up with soaring inflation.

That’s a lot to ask from an industry that’s used to a catch-and-release approach to staffing. To cope with the talent drought, smart employers are doing more than simply tweaking working conditions. They’re looking for ways to foster a positive work culture that will attract and keep dedicated employees.

Dr. Kevin Kelloway, a professor or organizational psychology at Saint Mary’s University, has recently helped develop a framework to guide employers who want to engineer a cultural shift. The RIGHT framework challenges some common assumptions about how culture works and how to improve it. It offers practical guidance retailers that’s easy to implement in the store, the warehouse, and the back office.

What today’s employees really want

Pundits differ as to what we should call the exodus of front-line workers during the pandemic. But whether you call it the Great Resignation, the Great Attrition, or the Great Rethink, one thing is clear: today’s retail employees want more than their counterparts of the past did.

Retail, says Dr. Kelloway, is “playing catch-up” with other industries, especially those sectors able to accommodate flexible work arrangements. When retail employees see their peers choosing their own hours and working from the safety and comfort of home, the constraints of bricks-and-mortar reality start to chafe. 

But ultimately, says Dr. Kelloway, what employees crave isn’t the right to show up to work in slippers and pyjamas. They want to be part of an organization that feels like “a great place to work.”

There’s more to creating a great workplace than switching up the muzak or crafting value statements that sound warm and fuzzy. In fact, such shallow initiatives only tend to backfire. Dr. Kelloway and a team of cross-disciplinary researchers have dived into the data, and they’ve discovered that what employees want can be summed up in five specific criteria:

  • Employees want to work in a place where thy feel their efforts are sincerely acknowledged and appreciated. (A token Employee of the Month award doesn’t cut it.)
  • Employees want to have a voice in decision-making, especially when the decisions affect them.
  • Growth and development. Employees want the opportunity to develop themselves, both professionally and personally.
  • Health and safety. Employees want to feel safe from physical and biological hazards, and they want to feel psychologically safe too.
  • Teamwork. Employees want to feel part of a team, a group that shares goals and cares for one another.

Together, these five elements form the RIGHT framework, a model you can follow to turn your workplace into the kind of space where employees show up eager to contribute.

Culture is how your leaders behave

Researchers have described workplace culture in many different ways, to varying degrees of precision. But a common-sense definition that seems to hold up overtime equates culture with “the way we do things around here.”

In other words, culture is the product of behavior. It’s not a framed mission statement, a set of HR policies, or an internal crusade. It’s the way “we”—those inside the organization—do things every day.

Whether or not you recognize the way you do things, your daily actions shape the culture of your workplace. As a leader, you can intentionally engage in small, consistent behaviors that positively influence that culture.

This focus on behavior may seem almost too simple if you’re used to thinking of leadership as a luxury pursuit for those with the time to study complex topics. But Dr. Kelloway dismisses the idea of leadership as something extra to be layered on top of everyday tasks.

Leadership, he says, consists of “practical behavioral expressions.” In other words, leadership isn’t theory, it’s everyday practice. Day-by-day consistency is the key to success.

In an earlier study, Dr. Kelloway and a colleague demonstrated this principle by asking restaurant employees to rate their leader’s behavior daily over a period of up to five days. At the same time, they also asked the employees to rate their level of engagement. The data showed a direct link between certain positive leadership behaviors and employee engagement. What’s more, those positive leadership behaviors also correlated with higher customer ratings.

Simple leadership behaviors to create a great place to work

The restaurant study documented daily instances of “transformational leadership,” a style of leading that emphasizes role-modeling, motivation, and caring. The RIGHT framework goes a step further by spelling out specific behaviors that leaders can perform to make the work culture as a whole “psychologically healthy.”

In a psychologically healthy work environment, ghosting and quiet quitting don’t jeopardize customer service because employees want to be at work, actively contributing. Work feels like a great place to be—a place where you experience acceptance, challenge, and a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself.

You can start making your workplace healthier by committing to taking a certain number of specific actions per day, week, and month. Using the RIGHT framework as your guide, identify specific, doable actions you can take regularly.

Remember, small actions done consistently count for more than one or two grandiose gestures done sporadically. Whichever “practical behavioral expressions” you decide on, make them behaviors you can commit to following through on.

Here are some suggestions from Dr. Kelloway to jumpstart your thinking:

  • R = Recognition. To show your employees how much you recognize and appreciate their effort, you might tell five people a day they’re doing a good job. Make sure your feedback is specific so that it comes across as authentic. (“Thank you for putting such an artistic touch on that new floor display!” is much more meaningful than “Good job on the floor display!”)
  • I = Involvement. Become an idea-gatherer. Challenge yourself to ask three employees a day for their input into a decision you’re considering. Three times a day, ask someone, “What do you think we should do?”
  • G = Growth and development. Talk to employees regularly about their personal goals. Schedule time for weekly or biweekly one-on-ones. At first, you may have to steal time from other activities to make space for these meetings. But you’ll soon reap back your investment when you start delegating more tasks to your highly motivated, learning-oriented team members.
  • H = Health and safety. On the store floor, conflict with customers can put retail employees in psychologically distressing situations. When you’re on the floor, keep an ear open for raised voices, and be ready to intervene to protect an employee from an aggressive customer. Once a week, debrief with the team any stressful customer interactions that have happened and discuss ways to de-escalate conflict.
  • T = Teamwork. A strong team feels like an elite club where membership is a privilege. Cultivating a sense of teamwork can be challenging when you supervise a lot of part-time employees with irregular schedules, but setting shared goals is a great place to start.

In a monthly team meeting, review your shared goals and get the team’s input into how to achieve them. Clearly link team goals to the overall mission of your organization so that everyone understands their role in the big picture. For example, in a pet supply store, the cashier may see herself as ringing up cans of dog food, and the sales associate may see himself as selling leashes and toys, but both employees are really helping customers take care of their pets. That’s a meaningful mission the whole team can get behind.

As you develop your own list of RIGHT behaviors to execute regularly, remember to schedule time for self-reflection too. Return daily to that critical question that will determine how easily you attract and retain employees: “What have I done today to make this a great place to work?”

Check out Part 1 of this edition of the David Sobey Centre Retail Insights Series as Dr. Kelloway discusses "Attracting & Retaining Talent":

Return to News Bulletin Listing

Share: Page Feedback