Keeping valued employees on board involves some detective work.

If you’re matching employees in your organization to new positions based solely on factors you feel they’d be interested in — thinking you’re guaranteeing their future job satisfaction — your approach may not be entirely effective.

Several years ago, a book published by career development service professional Jim Bright and Robert Pryor, who has taught at Sydney University, Macquarie University and the University of New South Wales, described a new talent management approach that centered on the unexpected elements that can shape an employee’s career.

The theory behind “The Chaos Theory of Careers: A New Perspective on Working in the Twenty-First Century” is that, in short, people change course. Sometimes unexpectedly. Whether it’s due to a marriage, a move or another reason, managers need to anticipate and plan for the effect those events will have on employee interest, performance and, ultimately, employee attrition.

According to a recent interview with Bright research has indicated that employees performing jobs that match their interests aren’t necessarily more satisfied or successful than people doing the same job who didn’t express an interest in the work.

Interest level, it seems, is just one piece of the employee development puzzle. The missing job satisfaction element? Other key factors, such as creativity and challenging work.

Staying In Motion with Employee Changes

Take, for example, specialty retailer ANN INC., which runs the highly successful Ann Taylor and LOFT brands.

ANN INC., according to a recent Gallup article outlining a study on the company, was trying to determine what essential components would help it develop high-performing managers and employees.

The ANN INC. study found that recruiting the right people wasn’t enough. Finding a good fit and engaging an employee were both equally important to the company and the individual’s success. Trying to engage workers who weren’t a great fit for their position didn’t provide anywhere near the same results as engaging high-talent employees.

The findings prompted ANN to tweak its processes, according to Gallup: including implementing methods to “meet associate needs at major milestones of their employment life cycle.” In other words, the organization put steps in place to address employees’ evolving job satisfaction needs — a basic tenet of career chaos theory.

Implementing Chaos Theory

To overcome the unknown elements of an employee’s career, managers need to be able to identify potentially life-changing incidences to gauge when an employee is about to change course.

Some — such as having a child and requiring more scheduling flexibility — may be obvious. Others — such as an employee taking courses at night to learn a new skill — may be missed by employers who think the employee is just taking up a new hobby (or may have no idea what employees are doing outside of work hours).

Obviously, employers can’t know everything about each employee’s life, external interests and desires.

However, with a few new moves, your organization can work to start accurately identifying, tracking and reacting to sudden shifts in employees’ lives.

Encouraging managers to informally keep up with employee interests is one potential approach. You may not need to build in a structured program; but adding a section to annual reviews to discuss educational or other goals, and asking managers to make an effort to converse with employees about their future and current goals can help you understand how employees’ employment needs are evolving.

Offering updates and training may also help. Inc. suggests asking job candidates about how they keep up with industry changes during an interview to find out where their true passion is focused. The technique can also potentially be used with current employees, outside of an interview setting, to help organizations find out interests and skills they may otherwise have no idea an employee possessed.

Consider providing sessions that address specific aspects of current positions within your organization and are open to all employees. Training or refresher workshops provide a pay-off for employers because they keep their team sharp — and they can also help employers gauge if, and how, certain employees are interested in keeping up-to-date in a given field.

Noting that a manager who was asked in an annual review to brush up on his tech skills has consistently failed to express interest in tech courses can indicate a growing dissatisfaction with a key component of that manager’s job.

If that’s the case, the worker can look elsewhere for a new job — or be cultivated from within to assume the role at your organization.