Why Employees Leave Managers, not Companies (and what to do about it)

Remember the classic book on relationships, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus?

Might it be time to write a similar volume about managers and employees?

Employees leave managers, not companies are managers from mars?

Managers are from…Mars?

Consider this: 53% of employees believe “inadequate staffing” is the major driver of stress at work, but only 15% of managers believe that. Meanwhile, 33% of managers believe overwhelming email is the leading reason for stress, but only 8% of employees feel the same.

The differences are even more stark at the moment when an employee leaves.

Employees know the root cause is most often a “bad manager,” or actions/inaction of their manager. Meanwhile, managers tend to report (or assume) it was a salary issue, or claim after the fact they, “weren’t a good fit anyways”.

Managers and their teams see the world from very different perspectives.

employees leave managers, not companies - dilbert knows

As true as ever: Employees leave managers, not companies

We’ve received a lot of great, positive feedback to our post on one of the age-old concepts in management theory: people leaving managers, not companies.

In our last post on the subject, we highlighted a number of keys:

Since that post, we’ve uncovered even more evidence and interesting data every manager, company leader, and HR practitioner needs to know.  It can help you further understand why employees leave managers, not companies, and what you can do about it.

Why Employees Leave Managers, not Companies (and what to do about it)

Given how much you depend on your manager, it’s not surprising that the mountain of evidence shows they affect your job satisfaction and decisions to leave.

Managers are usually most, if not all, of the following:

  • A major influence on your work and priorities.
  • The critical advocate (or detractor) for your promotion or bonus.
  • In the best position to help resolve issues & challenges you face.
  • Someone you must interact with on a daily basis (or if you go too long, it’s a problem, too).

Because of this, a person’s manager is often the best or worst part of an employee’s job.

employees leave managers, not companies the stats don't lie

By the numbers:

These statistics, from a variety of sources, are telling in the case that employees leave managers, not companies.

1) 75% of employees consider their direct manager to be the “worst part of their job.”

Research by Hogan Assessments showed that 75% of employees considered their direct boss to be “the worst part of their job.”

This came from a large, and broad audience. The sample size was over 320 American and European managers, rated by 4,906 direct reports. (Ed note: this also shows many managers have teams that are too big!)

2) 65% of employees would rather have a new manager than a pay raise.

Similarly, in another survey of 1,000 American employees conducted by Michelle McQuaid, 65% of respondents indicated they’d take a new boss over a pay raise.  

That’s quite an indictment.

But is it surprising? It shouldn’t be.

Think through your career about when you’ve made a move. Did you always take the highest paying job, or the one you were most excited about?

It doesn’t take long in your career to find that money isn’t the source of happiness. (And for those of you with a high paying job you love, I bet you have no intentions to leave.)

3) Great managers boost employee productivity by an average of 11% per employee, and have lower turnover on their teams.

This comes from a comprehensive study by the National Board of Economic Research of over 23,878 workers and 1,940 managers over a 5 year period.

What was most interesting was that great managers have an even bigger impact for high performing staff; good people thrive under good managers. Meanwhile, all employees are more likely to leave, and less productive under bad managers.

While productivity may not always be easy to measure, there is one part that every company painfully feels: turnover.

employees leave managers, not companies and they're looking for jobs now

More people are looking for jobs than you realize.

Recent studies by Deloitte and Gallup confirm a majority of the workforce is at least browsing for jobs this year, if not actively searching.

For Millennials in particular, Deloitte found the majority are already planning their exits:

employees leave managers, not companies deloitte shows turnover pattern

And Gallup’s most recent State of the American Workplace found all ages are considering moves:

“A record 47% of the workforce says now is a good time to find a quality job, and more than half of employees (51%) are actively looking for new jobs or watching for openings.”

And managers are the leading cause.

Research from Salary.com shows that 23% of employees look for a new job every single day. Many start looking in as little as six months after starting a new job.

And who is responsible for this shift?

The same research showed the majority of those searching cite having a “poor manager” or “poor relationship with manager” as their rationale.  It doesn’t take long for a manager to make someone want to look for greener grass.

Reinforcing this, Dale Carnegie’s 2016 Leadership Study indicated 41% of the global workforce will likely change jobs this year. Again, “bad management” was the #1 reason for switching jobs.

The Bottom Line: This is a very serious issue, both emotionally and financially. How someone feels about work affects every part of their life.

The financial costs to a company vary from study to study (anywhere from 1/3rd to 150% of someone’s salary), but whatever numbers you choose to believe, it’s unavoidable that bad management hurts your bottom line.

So why do employees leave managers, not companies? Consider these issues.

employees leave managers, not companies

Issue #1: We’re not so different from baboons

Bob Sutton, a professor at Stanford, has written a number of well known, best selling leadership books like Good Boss Bad Boss, The No Asshole Rule, and The Asshole Survival Guide.

As an expert on bad management, Sutton noted this in a recent Harvard Business Review article on new managers:

“The average baboon looks up at the alpha male every 30 seconds or so to see what he is doing. We do the same thing when we’ve been promoted, constantly looking up to make sure our boss is seeing and approving of us, which means we’re paying less attention to the people we’re now leading.”

Directing your attention up the hierarchy naturally reduces the time you can direct back down to your direct reports. It’s also a logical reason why politics creeps into companies; in an effort to look good to those above you, a bad manager invest more in managing up, than taking care of their team.

This aligns with a new study from Bamboo HR, which found that the No. 1 complaint about bosses by employees was their boss, “takes credit for my work.”

Unfortunately, a manager with a desire to be perceived well upwards would be tempted to take credit for their team’s work. This issue is then compounded when you imagine any feelings of self-consciousness or imposter syndrome in a new role.

The Problem: A short term focus and demands on managers.

The problem is that HR, senior leaders, and executives are not prioritizing long term investment in their managers.

Many organizations operate as “sense of urgency” workplaces; what your boss demands right now and how you respond to it is crucial.

By complying with this culture of urgency, managers are rewarded with the potential for promotion despite the cost to their team. Meanwhile, they are not rewarded for healthy, long term investments in their people.

What fixes a problem, hits a number, or gets the job done today, can often be accomplished at the expense of their people. A militant asshole can get a lot out of their team, right until they all burn out and quit. Employees leave managers, not companies.

employees leave managers, not companies grace hopper knows

The Solution: Invest in your managers, so they can invest in their people.

This solution isn’t easy, but it is necessary to change the current numbers we’ve discussed today.

For anything to improve, you have to work at it. That means you need programs that invest in improving your managers, and reward them for the right habits.

These can be third-party programs such as Lighthouse, or internally-developed programs — but they must exist.

As important, they need executive buy in and support; their example will be followed by others. The attention of senior leadership also ensures such efforts are monitored for ongoing success instead of forgotten.

Help them make time.

Asking your managers to make time for something else can be met with resistance. They’re already very busy. This is why incorporating time management training into broader managerial training can be very helpful.

Time management (or even better, priority management) can often be made more effective by shifting their focus; as covered in Harvard Business Review, a manager spends 7 of every 10 minutes doing a repetitive or low value-add task.

If a manager better prioritizes their time, they will then have more time to invest in their people and other new, high value activities that get beyond looking up to their leader.

employees leave managers, not companies watch out for too personal of information

Issue #2: A fear of friendship and favoritism

Research on the power of friends at work shows that a friend you see most days at work has been correlated to the equivalent of an additional $100,000 in salary.

Meanwhile, additional research on the power of gratitude at work shows further value in having closer relationships with staff; 51 different studies have shown it to be better than salary and perks.

Yet, many managers avoid these intentionally; they don’t want to be seen as “friends” with their direct reports, and often go to great lengths to avoid this perception. They do this for a variety of reasons:

  • Unwanted: They assume their people want their manager to stay at arms length.
  • Legal: While managers may not go full Mike Pence, many will avoid any situation that could be misconstrued to extreme degrees.
  • Favorites: If you’re too close to some on your team, it can appear to others you’re playing favorites even when any promotion or opportunity is justified.
  • Discipline: It can be hard for either side to separate a friendship when you need to be their boss to fix problems or make tough calls.
  • All they know: If you’ve only ever had cold, distant bosses, you’re likely to assume that’s what you should do as well.

Despite the data showing the value of it, it’s not surprising many managers avoid connection with their teams.

The Problem: Managers are too distant from their teams.

The rationale here is logical, if misguided. Hierarchy seems to imply that some degree of fear or concern from direct reports towards their manager will keep them in line more.

This may work for some employees for some time, but acting in fear does not bring the same work ethic, commitment, and passion that wanting to do good work for your manager brings.

It also defies basic ideas of human connection. Instead, it replaces them with metrics around productivity and abstract ideas about professionalism.

It is important to be respectful, yes — Yet, 60% of managers have reported “not having the time” to respect their employees (respect is scheduled in Outlook?).

employees leave managers, not companies camille knows you gotta care

The Solution: Managers need to build rapport with their team members.

No matter your level in an organization, you need to build rapport with your team and peers. There’s a reason so many leaders across industries swear by it. It is entirely possible to build rapport without turning into their best friend or therapist.

Experts agree on the importance of building rapport, too. Gallup’s 2015 “State of the American Manager” report specifically highlights the connection in 2 key charts:

employees leave managers, not companies rapport matters

As you can see from Gallup’s data, if your people “Strongly Disagree” about being able to come to you, there’s almost no chance they’re engaged at work. The only way someone will feel comfortable coming to their manager with any issues is if there is rapport and trust in their relationship.

You have to build rapport. It is not there by default.

You wouldn’t talk to a stranger about your problems, and a standoffish manager that only asks for status updates might as well be one. It takes some level of trust to confidently ask questions, raise issues before they’re fires, or bring up non-work issues that affect their work.

It is possible, and common among great leaders, to be both (a) professional and (b) care about your employees. It’s why Dick Costolo, former CEO of Twitter, said in a speech, “You have to care deeply about your people, but not what they think of you.”

Managers who understand the value and balance of rapport can have more candid conversations, fix problems when they’re smaller, and have better relationships with their teams. Meanwhile, those that don’t are exactly the ones blindsided by voluntary turnover on their team.

employees leave managers, not companies lumbergh would spout buzzwords

Issue #3: The buzzword trap of feedback

Too often, feedback is given weakly, late, or not at all. There should be no surprises in an employee’s performance review, but too often that’s what happens.

This is one of many reasons that there’s a growing backlash against performance reviews, because of their many problems:

Whether your company gets rid of performance reviews like GE and Adobe have, or work to keep & improve them, employees want more feedback.

In one such study, they found that all generations, and especially Millennials, want feedback more often:

employees leave managers, not companies they want feedback

It’s important to note the frequencies receiving the most support: Weekly, monthly, and quarterly. Employees want to know where they stand and learn how to improve, but not every day.

The Problem: Reactionary management does more harm than good.

The buzzword du jour for the past few years has been “real time feedback,” which sounds great in theory; if once or twice a year isn’t enough, then why not swing the pendulum all the way in the other direction?

There are a number of issues with real-time feedback, not the least of which is the implication that feedback should be a drive-by *right now* as opposed to a conversation.

The way many companies structure their real-time feedback approach is geared towards reaction as opposed to response.

Reaction is immediate and visceral. It’s tied to our reptilian brains, and loaded with emotion.

Response is more thoughtful and measured. It’s high-context, and actionable.

employees leave managers, not companies give real feedback

Too many managers are reactionary.

Many managers prioritize “reaction” as a feedback style, i.e. “I need to deal with him/her right now.” Sending off a terse note may feel good in the moment, but it doesn’t help fix a problem.

Also, while for the most severe issues immediate response is necessary, in most cases a conversation with context and background would be more effective.

A real conversation would also allow the employee to understand the different parts of whatever the issue at hand is. You could then talk about next steps and ways to avoid the issue in the future.

Real-time feedback often implies any time, perhaps even daily, but you can see from the study above that’s not actually the preferred frequency by a wide margin. Excessive feedback can be as unwelcome and frustrating as no feedback at all, and drive-by feedback lacks the nuance needed to connect and fix an issue fully.

employees leave managers, not companies one on ones are key

The Solution: Have regular 1 on 1s between managers and their team members.

The best feedback loops and actual progress from feedback occur in 1-on-1 meetings between a manager and a team member.  By having a set time on the calendar, you can really dig into an issue without having to make a big deal and separate meeting about it.

However, that’s just one of many benefits of 1 on 1s. Some of the major advantages of great 1 on 1s include:

  • Opportunities to coach, remove blockers, and work on problems.
  • Thoughtful, structured feedback instead of a “drive-by” in real time.
  • Strengthened rapport between manager and employee as they get to know each other and build trust.
  • Regularly scheduled time together, ensuring no one is ignored or out of the loop.
  • Flexible time to cover any of a variety of ideal topics not covered any other way.

The 1 on 1 has long been called one of the best assets of the managerial toolkit. That’s why we put together an eBook on How to have Amazing 1 on 1s” which you can get a copy of here.

And if you’re really ready to get serious about 1 on 1s, and get their full value:

employees leave managers, not companies dilbert knows training can be a joke

Issue #4: Got Training?

When we talk to HR at various companies, we regularly hear the same story:

“We bring in someone for training. People are excited and rate them highly right after the session. Then they go back to their job and nothing changes.”

There’s even a name for forgetting this sort of training: the Ebbinghaus curve.

employees leave managers, not companies ebbinghaus curve

What Ebbinghaus found in his research was that without practice and repetition, you very quickly forget what you learned. Sounds a lot like that training seminar, doesn’t it?

The Problem: One off training is not enough.

Many studies on what differentiates “the best places to work” point to repeated, high-context training opportunities. In fact, the best companies offer *double* the training hours compared to other companies.

However, more is not always better.

Unfortunately, a lot of managerial training isn’t that great; some is even rooted in 1911 methodology (Frederick Winslow Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management) which has little value today. The managerial skills needed to run an assembly line are completely different than those needed to intrinsically motivate a white collar office environment.

What’s worse: some companies (as much as 49%) don’t train at all.

The Washington Post captured this sentiment well in their 2014 headline: “What companies really want? Employees they don’t have to train.”

Unfortunately, without training, your employees are set up to fail. If you ever promote any of them, or need to adapt to changing markets and environments, you’ll need to train.

And training isn’t just in a classroom-like environment. Some of the best training and coaching is when one peer teaches another, or a manager coaches their team members.

Sadly, the same companies that don’t do group training, often have employees that are ignored by their busy bosses.

Training and learning is a cultural value and habit for everyone.

[Ed note: Training is crucial to managerial development, and it takes time to become a great habit. Having a system to help you learn and continue applying these skills can make all the difference in retaining and applying what you learn.

This is a key reason why we developed Lighthouse and our continuous manager improvement platform to help companies like yours.]

employees leave managers, not companies example matters

The Solution: Lead by example.

The best learning occurs by example. Even if a training program isn’t necessarily formalized due to cost concerns, managers need to show other managers (and direct reports) the types of behaviors that are preferred within that organization.

If in doubt, most employees will do what they see the leaders above them doing.

Good training is about learning and modeling the right behaviors:

  • Respect
  • Clear communication
  • Professionalism
  • Giving and receiving feedback
  • Development of new skill sets or how to internally look for new opportunities
  • Meeting structure
  • Priority-setting and time management
  • How you treat those above, below, and equal to you in the org chart

Training programs don’t necessarily need to be expensive, formalized events, but they do need to be intentional.

Culture is like concrete; if you don’t design it to be how you want it, you’re likely to find cracks and problems with what forms organically.

Whether you invest in formal training programs or not, the habits that are modeled by your leaders down through to every manager is one of the most important parts of the culture you design.  Choose wisely.

employees leave managers, not companies

Issue #5: Theory is easy. Practice is hard.

We all know what makes a bad manager. You’ve probably had a few in your career, and may have even at times been one yourself.

We don’t like micromanagement. We don’t like being completely ignored, or dumped on.

We want actual connection and conversation. We want projects that inspire us, and opportunities for growth.

So if we generally know these concepts that need to be in place to create good management, it bears asking: why are there still so many bad managers?

The problem: Current processes and structure work against you.

There are literally dozens of reasons why bad management is a consistent problem at many companies. Here’s some of the biggest:

  • HR is delegated a leadership problem by leadership: The top priorities of HR are the essential responsibilities to make sure everyone gets paid on time and avoiding legal issues. Unfortunately, that doesn’t align with solving leadership issues, and at times can even be in direct conflict with them.
  • Leadership passes responsibility for something they can’t give up: When senior leaders pass the issue to HR, they forget that a leader’s example is the most powerful tool they have.  Without at least modest involvement and coordination, they undermine the goals of any training when they don’t first lead by their own example.
  • Moving to management is viewed as a promotion, not a career change: It’s actually much closer to the latter, which means it requires an entirely new degree of support and context. Sadly, many are supported less after a promotion to management than when they were an IC.
  • Most aren’t naturals at this: Gallup research has indicated as few as 1 in 10 people have the natural skill to manage, so any others promoted need coaching and help to succeed.
  • It’s often the only way to make more money: In too many companies, people pursue management roles for that reason, as opposed to legitimately wanting to grow and foster a team.
  • Learned helplessness: When negative outcomes appear beyond your control, you can be susceptible to giving up all hope. It’s one of the ugly side effects of corporate politics and inefficiencies when it goes unaddressed for too long.
  • Lack of measurement or rewards: At many companies there is no reward for being a good manager, and good management habits aren’t measured in any way to identify and reward them. Even worse, managers with known problems are often promoted as a reward for short term results, while issues like sexual harassment are swept under the rug for them.

Unfortunately, that list is just scraping the surface of the bad management cocktail.  If many of the above issues are the case at your company, it’s no surprise if bad managers are common.

employees leave managers, not companies

The Solution: Start at the Top.

It starts at the top with senior leaders embracing the benefits of good, accountable leadership. This can be rooted in financial metrics, such as savings on turnover, or Gallup’s research on the value of engaged employees. It pays off.

In a meta-analysis, companies at the 99th percentile of employee engagement outperformed those at the 1st percentile 4-to-1.

A study by Glassdoor further reinforced this when they found how well “Best Places to Work” performed relative to the S&P 500.

employees leave managers, not companies

Investing in your employees to have a better place to work has a significant impact on your bottom line.

It comes down to managers.

The basic unit of leadership is the manager; any company is a collection of managers stacked and organized to form a functional organization.

Managers represent so much to their teams:

  • The person that helps determine their workload and responsibilities.
  • Their coach to help them learn, fix problems, and remove blockers.
  • The main representative to them and communicator of company leadership.
  • A gatekeeper to the next raise, promotion, and opportunity.

A company is only as strong as the people they choose for these positions, and how they support & reward them for being great managers.

When you combine the tools and training to empower each of your managers to be successful, it will trickle up and down your organization. You will create a healthy business, where people choose to stay, instead of quit their managers.

The bottom line: It starts with you.

For some, like us, this is a life’s calling. We spend 10 to 12 hours a day in these companies for the bulk of our lives. We owe it to ourselves to make these relationships better, and know what to do when we become managers ourselves.

And this isn’t just at the highest levels by any means. Despite recent research on the ineffectiveness of middle management, we’d point to management legend Andy Grove here:

employees leave managers, not companies

Every manager is responsible for the quality and retention of their teams. Companies can help by investing in supporting their managers, but you don’t have to wait for your company to act.

As managers, we’re all micro-CEOs in this way. And people are breaking up with us. A lot. It’s time to change that.

If you want to be part of the solution, here’s where to start:

  1. You can learn all about the manager’s best tool, the 1 on 1, and how great leaders make the most of the meeting here.
  2. When you’re ready to take action as a manager to do the things that make people love working for you, you can sign up for a free trial of Lighthouse to make it easier for you here.
  3. And if you’re looking to make great leaders across your organization, learn how Lighthouse’s Continuous Manager Improvement can help you here.