Most people need only spend ten minutes on LinkedIn before they are confronted with some iteration of the pseudo-quote: “Employees don’t leave bad companies, they leave bad managers.”
In its numerous forms, it has been attributed to different speakers and thinkers, accompanied with varied imagery and humour, and always liked by a host of distant connections who apparently advocate for its central sentiment. It is truly an evergreen LinkedIn post, confidently and knowingly posted near daily by individuals from right across the globe — from companies big and small, to senior executives and entry-level recruits.
So ubiquitous is this phrase that you may have long since stopped considering how worthy it is as a concept. Dazed by its persistence, and blinded by its apparent universal acknowledgement, have you ever stopped to consider how true its central idea actually is? Do people genuinely only leave a company because of bad management?
Unfortunately, of course, most experienced professionals with some years under their belt can probably recall a time when they decided to look for a new role for exactly this reason. Many people have struggled with the relationship with their immediate line manager — really the most important of all working relationships.
Maybe it was because of conflicting communication styles; maybe it was seemingly unreasonable expectations; maybe it was a basic misalignment of personalities.
Whatever the reasoning, many people will certainly be able to point to instances where a poisoned relationship with their manager drove them to job boards and to updating their CV.
But is this the full story? Or is this rather letting poorly-performing organisations off the hook? I’d guess that many of the same experienced professionals could also recall times when their immediate line manager was, far from the motivation to leave, one of the key reasons they continued in a role. These were managers who always have their reports interests at heart.
Managers who would go out on a limb to advocate for their top performers. People who would enrich a team’s working culture with focus and belief and a genuine sense of purpose.
These managers, then, are key reasons why particular teams will have strong employee retention and consistent productivity. They are why some departments will continue, even during the most extreme of organisational crisis, to function effectively and harmoniously. They are a key organisational asset, and one that corporate leaders would do well to invest in.
Much expectation and responsibility are placed on the shoulders of middle managers and team leaders. They must be simultaneously effective managers of people, representatives and translators of corporate strategy, and effective performers in their own right.
They must do this in often challenging and adverse conditions, and they must do so while remaining responsible and accountable to the people under their charge. With such weight already placed on their shoulders, it seems unreasonable to also throw full responsibility for employee retention on them.
People leave jobs for many other reasons — from a lack of belief in the ability of senior leaders, to a dislike of corporate policies, to simply viewing external opportunities as being a better route to personal growth. They may simply think they will be paid more elsewhere, or they might be seeking to develop their talents in a business of different scale.
Even the best of middle managers would be doing exceedingly well to effectively handle any of these concerns alone. A business needs to empower managers with the autonomy to handle employee concerns, and they need to train them properly so that they are capable of righting even the most toxic of deteriorating relationships with an individual employee.
At the same time, organisational leaders should focus on the full extent of motivations and drivers of employee decisions under their control — from corporate direction to communication to compensation. And, yes, to management too.
Then, perhaps a better assessment of the situation could be this: “Employees quit bad managers AND bad companies. Best invest in improving both!”
— Ahmad Badr is CEO of Knowledge Group.