One of the most common phrases heard in leadership and talent management circles is: “Talented people join companies but leave managers” or its cousin, “Employees don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.” You may even have uttered these lines yourself more than a few times.
But are they true? Or put differently – when a talented staff member resigns, should we immediately put their manager at the top of the list of the usual suspects when it comes to reasons for their departure?
Before we examine some answers to this question, it is important to note that an employee leaving is not always a negative event. For instance, when a problematic or poor-performing employee resigns, most managers and talent professionals won’t necessarily see this as a problem. Instead, such resignations may even be seen as proof that the internal “talent filter” is working correctly.
So, when CEOs and CHROs worry about managers being to blame for staff leaving, they are mostly concerned with talented or high-performing employees leaving the organisation.
Why people leave companies: It’s complicated
Although it’s tempting to conclude that bad managers are the only reason for talented people leaving, the reality is far more complex. For instance, recent studies have questioned this received wisdom and shown that talented staff sometimes leave good managers as frequently as bad ones (Ganjendran & Somaya, 2016). The difference lies in the way in which such employees behave post-resignation.
Those who leave good managers tend to maintain relationships with their previous employer and may return at a later stage (so-called “boomerang” employees). They may also be productive sources of referrals for their past employer’s recruitment function.
Talented employees who leave bad managers tend to break relations with their past employer, won’t return and may even discourage others from joining the organisation in question.
Apart from bad managers, there are powerful personal and organisational factors that play a role in someone’s decision to leave. Much like the layers of an onion, these factors may be on the outer edge of an employee’s awareness and day-to-day life, while others are intimate and deeply meaningful features of work:
- Time of year and tenure: Many employees go through more reflective stages at the end of a year or the time of their work anniversary. They may consciously or unconsciously ask the questions: “Am I still happy here?” and “Is it perhaps time to move on?”
- Organisational esteem: Some employees are more deeply affected by the organisation’s esteem within the larger industry or community. For instance, a business that suffers a public embarrassment or scandal may see talented employees leave to avoid being associated with such troubles.
- Organisational culture and values: Talented employees often take their work seriously and, in part, gain satisfaction from having a deep overlap between their employer’s and their own values. When the organisational culture shifts and values are either changed or not followed, such employees may become disengaged and leave. This includes perceived unethical and toxic work cultures which disrespect employee rights or have an instrumentalist management ethic (Sull, Sull & Zweig, 2022).
- Fair remuneration: While we can always have more money, research suggests that few people leave only because of money. Instead, talented employees will leave if they believe (or know) that they are not being paid according to industry and market-related benchmarks. In addition, talented employees will start looking elsewhere if they believe that less-talented colleagues are being paid the same (or more) than they are.
- Access to technology: As business becomes increasingly digitised and dependent on advanced technologies, the access one enjoys to cutting or bleeding-edge technology becomes relevant to engagement. This is especially true in the technology sector (but increasingly outside it as well). Employers who are unable or unwilling to give their talented staff access to the latest, most advanced technology may suffer from increased turnover.
- Benefits and flexibility: Of course, nowadays, most employers are aware of the so-called “Great Resignation” observed across the globe, in part due to conditions inherent to the worldwide COVID pandemic. However, talented employees have always left employers who, in their estimation, did not offer sufficient flexibility and alternative working conditions. And while the pandemic may have served to distil such concerns more clearly, employers ought to consider the impact of a return to “business as usual” when their competitors are offering work-from-home and hybrid models to their most talented employees.
- Development opportunities: If there is one reason for leaving that commonly outperforms “bad manager” as a reason for leaving, it is the lack of development opportunities (for instance, see Saks, 2019). Talented employees become frustrated if they think their employer won’t invest in their professional education and enrichment.
- Team dynamics: Other than one’s manager, the most proximal persons who may impact engagement are one’s colleagues. Being part of a bad team, or one with a bad reputation, or not getting along with colleagues on whom one depends can lead to rapid disengagement and eventual resignation.
- Personal factors: Sometimes, talented staff may resign even when they have good managers, fair remuneration and enjoy the team they belong to. In such cases, their leaving may have been due to personal tragedy, changes in life circumstances (e.g. emigration, marriage, illness) or a re-evaluation of their career path. Remember that talented employees are often multi-talented and, thus, may have career aspirations that fall outside of their current employer’s capacity to accommodate.
It should now be clear that having a simplistic, manager-centric view of employee turnover is not an accurate reflection of what is really happening in businesses. There is, however, a component of truth to the emphasis that has been traditionally placed on managers when looking for reasons why talented people leave.
For one, managers are often the most obvious point of intervention when employees become disengaged. As such, they can act as powerful barriers and early-warning systems for staff disengagement. Let’s take a closer look at that.
The manager as engagement professional
Although managers may well sometimes be the reason for talented staff leaving, a more nuanced view is that managers are the most logical point of intervention for disengaged staff.
Whether the issue is unfair remuneration, lack of development opportunities or a poorly fitting team, the manager of that team is in the most advantageous position to change things. In this sense, all managers should view themselves as engagement professionals – people who are tasked with ensuring and improving staff engagement.
Engagement is not an HR task or something to outsource to talent management consultants. Instead, it is a core management function that organisations should expect from their leaders.
An important first step on the road to becoming a barrier to disengagement is for managers to listen carefully to their team members. It involves getting to know them better, understanding more than just their business-related lives and cultivating empathy (Reina et al. 2018).
By having regular check-ins and putting engagement on the conversational agenda, leaders can go a long way to prevent talented staff from leaving unnecessarily.
In addition, it may be useful for leaders to have a quarterly engagement review with their team and to use anonymised engagement surveys, just in case they really are one of the causes of disengagement!
Conclusion: Even good leaders lose good people
As mentioned above, research shows that, sometimes, good managers lose talented employees about as often as bad leaders do. This is an important observation but comes with a caveat: Good leaders prepare talented staff for their next careers, even if those careers are not within their current company.
Reflect on that statement a while and you will realise that, by developing and coaching their staff, good leaders are not always assured of 100% retention. But then, not all resignations are created equal. When talented staff, who have been mentored by skilled leaders, leave a company, they often do so with strong ties to that leader and will become sources of talent referral, act as brand ambassadors and may well return to their original employer in time.
Yes, good people do leave because of bad managers. There is firm evidence to suggest that toxic or ill-equipped leadership can make talented staff’s engagement levels plummet and send them into the welcoming embrace of competitors who have invested more in developing better leaders.
But to say that it is the only reason for turnover is an oversimplification. In this article, we’ve looked at quite a few other reasons for disengagement and introduced the more important insight that, while leaders aren’t always to blame for staff leaving, they are the most obvious point of intervention before that takes place.
Cultivating leaders who can act as engagement professionals is a powerful way to boost engagement and retain high-performing talent.
By Marcel Harper