Keep Your Talent: How Managers of Dance Businesses Can Combat “The Great Resignation”

January 5, 2022

Whether you’re a studio owner, run a dance company or work at a dance nonprofit, you may have started to breathe a little easier lately as operations have stabilized after almost two years of pandemic upheaval. So news of “The Great Resignation” is disconcerting. More than 19 million workers (and counting) have quit their jobs since April 2021, according to McKinsey & Company, and 40 percent of current employees are thinking about doing the same in the next three to six months. And, as passionate as people may be about working in a field they love, dance businesses are not immune. 

There’s no one reason for all the quitting, but many people seem to be having a moment of “COVID clarity.” Compelled to protect their physical safety, people are also paying more attention to their mental health—and saying no to exhausting workplaces, particularly ones that come with low pay. “It’s so easy to feel trapped in a job—that there aren’t other choices,” says Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. “With COVID, everything was up in the air. People realized there are other ways to live and work.” 

While no manager can prevent every departure—and shouldn’t try to—Scott believes that at the heart of retaining employees is building trusting relationships that allow for candid conversation. Imagine if an employee doesn’t feel safe enough to tell you she’s scared to go back to in-person work, or can’t handle one more “exciting project.” “That employee won’t tell you what’s wrong. She’ll just quit,” says Scott. 

Headshot of blond woman in a t-shirt and hoodie, smiling in front of tall flowers
Kim Scott. Photo by Margaret Rosser

Understand that people are usually leaving their boss, not the work.

Employees “want meaningful interactions, not just transactions” with their colleagues, reports McKinsey. “Get to know each person who reports to you well enough to understand how they derive meaning from their work,” Scott says.  

Don’t leave emotion at the door.

“The boss/employee relationship is a human rela­tionship that involves both intellect and emotion, and at the center of it is trust,” says Scott. Having an ongoing, authentic conversation is key to developing that trust. And feelings will be part of that—both yours and your employees’. 

Solicit feedback.

While giving feedback to get results may be a manager’s job, getting feedback comes first, says Scott. Without knowing what an employee’s experience is really like, you won’t be able to improve it.

  1. Ask a question. “One I like myself is ‘What could I do that would make it easier to work with me?’ ” says Scott. “It can’t be answered with a yes or no.” 
  2. Embrace the discomfort. After asking for feedback, “close your mouth and wait six seconds,” says Scott. Often, the person will come up with something more revealing than “Oh, no, everything’s fine.” 
  3. Listen with the intent to understand but not to respond—even though it’s human to be defensive.
  4. Reward feedback. If you agree with the feedback, fix the problem. Then ask: “Did that fix the problem? Did I overcorrect?” “If you don’t agree, look for the 10 percent you do agree with and give voice to that,” says Scott. “It’s fine to say, ‘I’d like to think about that and get back to you.’ ” Commit to another conversation.

Check in often.

Set a weekly 30- to 45-minute one-on-one meeting with each direct report, Scott advises, and reserve five minutes at the end to solicit feedback. Another good moment for finding out what’s really on someone’s mind is when they’re mad at you; if you can check your defensiveness, you’re more likely to get honest feedback.

Monitor how your own feedback is landing.

Whether it’s praise or criticism, “make sure you’re caring personally and challenging directly,” says Scott—what she calls “radical candor.” We all get this balance wrong from time to time. 

  • When you challenge someone directly but don’t show you care personally about them, obnoxious aggression is the result, she says. 
  • If you avoid a difficult conversation because you are more focused on how you’ll be perceived than on helping the employee improve, that’s what Scott calls “manipulative insincerity.” Flattering them to their face, but criticizing them behind their back is neither caring nor challenging. 
  • If criticism is so sugarcoated and unclear that the employee can’t learn what they need to do, that’s what Scott calls “ruinous empathy.”

You may discover this approach to managing is easier than you think. After all, anyone who’s grown up in dance thrives on corrections. Your employees may be more comfortable than most with the kind of radical candor that creates the best work—and helps you keep the staff you need.