Is it true that people leave managers not businesses?
Or is it a truism? Or worse, a myth perpetuated by leadership and management trainers to extract training fees under false pretences?
Does it matter? Well only if you don’t do a proper diagnosis of the causes of high employee turnover and disengagement in any given business.
If you have an employee turnover rate that is causing you concern or is higher than your industry’s best performers, how have you diagnosed the cause? It’s not easy, is it. There are so many factors that need to be isolated to make a proper analysis. So it’s often easier to go with truisms such as this or implement flavour of the moment solutions to address factors in isolation. This, by the way, is a great way to do experiments but not necessarily the best way to resolve complex issues. In a chain, it’s the weakest link that dictates the strength of the chain; strengthening the wrong links won’t make any overall difference.
So let’s explore the veracity of the statement a little further.
It certainly sounds plausible doesn’t it. According to another truism, business problems are people problems, in which case employees must leave because of managers not because of the business.
However, I’m not so sure. I’ve never left a great company because I had a manager I felt could be better. On the other hand, I have left jobs with “bad companies” regardless of the strengths of the manager. In fact, it’s pretty hard to be a great manager in a business with an unbearable culture that treats people like resources rather than as human beings.
But that’s just me. What about some research. Well, you don’t have to look far to find some. Research reported by Culture Amp showed that the commitment of employees to their company is affected by a number of factors. However, management competency was not the most important factor – it was only third at 12%. More than twice as important (28%) was leadership and almost twice as important again (52%) was the opportunity for development – the chance to develop personally, professionally and to advance in one’s career.
Furthermore, in companies with low manager ratings generally, commitment to the company is still well above average if there are ample development opportunities. In companies lacking in development opportunities, improving management ratings appears to have no effect on commitment to the company – it remains below average.
So if a company does not meet the basic human need for growth and development, employees are far less likely to be committed to the company (and therefore far more likely to leave) than if their manager is incompetent in some way.
It would seem that people leave bad companies, regardless of management competency, while people will stay at good companies in spite of management competency being low.
Where, then, does the idea that “people leave managers not companies” come from?
It appears to have originated in 1999 from Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman’s book, First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Best Managers Do Differently.
The statement appears to be formulated from a correlation to five specific and broad employee engagement questions and a some anecdotal evidence.
The point being made in the book is that, in the assessment of what makes a company a good company, there is an over-emphasis on benefits and perks, compensation packages and gym/childcare/healthcare facilities/etc. I agree, those aspects do tend to be over-emphasised and they do not make a good company in themselves. I’m sure you can think of some “bad” companies that offer these things, perhaps so they can tick some boxes for PR purposes?
But the phrase appears to have been taken out of context by many people to justify training and retraining managers when what is actually needed is a deep rethinking of the culture of companies aligned to treating people as adult human beings.
Give people the chance to grow and develop, give them security and a variety of work that suits their strengths and makes a difference, give them opportunities to develop relationships with peers (and managers) and a little praise from time to time so they know how much they’re contributing and you’ll have all the commitment you need.
Your employee retention will go up and people will stay because you have a great company. Watch out though – some people will leave: those managers that can’t hack working for a great company and aren’t prepared to change in line with the new culture.