March 7, 2015

Employees don’t leave bosses, they leave companies

People don't leave bad bosses, they leave companies

I’ll bet when you saw the heading, Employees don’t leave bosses, they leave companies, and it sunk in, you thought, “Wow, did he get that wrong.”

Most leadership gurus say the opposite, “people leave managers not companies”.

And, there are in the region of 437 000 data points supporting them on Google.

Of course, the great Gallup organization can’t be wrong, surely? The evidence is overwhelming. Gallup polled 1 million employed US workers and figured that the reason people quit their jobs is a bad boss or immediate supervisor.

Maybe I’m just an old cynic. But I believe it serves companies who train leadership skills to perpetuate the ‘bad boss’ theory. I believe their intent is more self-serving than magnanimous.

There’s counter-argument to the notion that employees leave bosses and not companies.

I’m going to put two arguments forward.

  1. Employees leave companies with broken cultures and not broken bosses
  2. Employees quit because they don’t know how to deal with and overcome obstacles

Walk with me …

People Leave Companies With Broken Cultures, Not Broken Bosses

I read this in an article entitled: The #1 Reason People Quit Their Jobs

Based on the Gallup Poll, the author claimed that employees left bad bosses. These bosses had the following characteristics according to their employees:

  • Bullying
  • Incompetence
  • Harassment and discrimination
  • Not respecting legal rights
  • Privacy invasion

On the face of it, who would want to work for a boss like that? Not me, that’s for sure.

But there’s a question that needs to be explored.

Is it a boss problem or is it a broken system problem?

A manager is typically promoted into his position. (You get that I’m using ‘his’ and not ‘his’ and/or ‘her’ for expediency sake).

Unless he is a total conniving sociopath, surely traits like bullying, incompetence and the like, would have come out sooner? Surely someone would have noticed?

So, employing someone like this into a management position is a disaster waiting to happen.

The argument should rather be, why is that malevolent individual still working at the company, let alone getting a promotion?

That rotten egg should have been fired long ago.

In my opinion it is the system that failed the employee by allowing this manager power over him.

It is clear to me that companies that promote obvious malcontents to a management position have an incomplete vision of who they are and what they want to achieve.

Could it be a ‘turn a blind eye’ culture that is the problem and not a ‘bad boss’.

Louis Efron, who wrote the following article on the website: Six Reasons Why Your Employees Quit, extrapolated some of the Gallup Poll data (and, I’m not sure if it is the same survey that found a million people left their jobs because of their bosses).

I believe he gave a more balanced argument than it is just the ‘bad boss’ that gets folks to leave.

Here are the 6 reasons:

  1. No vision
  2. No connection to the big picture
  3. No empathy
  4. No (effective) motivation
  5. No future
  6. No fun

On the face of it this is a company culture problem not a ‘bad boss’ problem, wouldn’t you say?

So, let’s not be so quick to blame ‘bad bosses’ for employee exodus. This needs to be explored more because in all likelihood the problem lies further upstream.

Employees quit because they don’t know how to deal with and overcome obstacles

Sometimes, blaming someone else (like a boss) is just a convenient excuse to hide our own inadequacies.

When the going get’s tough, the tough get going

Lovely sentiment. But, for most of us not a likely scenario, that’s for sure.

Many of us haven’t learned how to deal with obstacles from early on in our lives. We either didn’t have the ‘gift of suffering’ where we were forced to come up with solutions to obstacles or we avoided obstacles altogether.

As a result, many of us just don’t have sitzfleish … Staying Power.

Because we haven’t built up our ‘obstacle overcoming muscles’ over time … as soon as the going get’s tough, we quit.

So, when it comes to a ‘bad’ boss, we quit instead of staying the course and coming out tougher at the end.

Remember, people who quit bosses also quit other things. We quit our studies, our marriages, our family, our gym, our religion, our health, our education and our dreams.

It’s the human condition we all face because it is easier to quit something than to have the sitzfleish to see something through to the end, isn’t it? That’s hard. That’s uncomfortable. That’s messy.

I don’t believe most of us have faced and overcome enough obstacles to have become tough and resilient enough to turn new obstacles into an advantage.

Work for something bigger than a paycheque

Efron mentioned ‘no vision’ as a reason we quit their companies. This is a double whammy. Many of us don’t have a vision for our own life and the company we serve doesn’t have a compelling vision of its own, either.

Etsko Schuitema, lead partner of the Schuitema Human Excellence Group talks about ‘benevolent intent’. He wrestles with the concept of how to get employees to come to work for something bigger than themselves and their paycheque.

If we’re just at work for the paycheque, we’re always going to have a problem. Even Richard Branson couldn’t motivate us.

“A man’s job is to make the world a better place to live in, so far as he is able – always remembering the results will be infinitesimal – and to attend to his own soul.” – LeRoy Percy – former US Senator

Stop judging

Schuitema Tweeted (@etsko) the other day “Replace judgement with curiosity”.

This is profound if you really think about it.

Become curious. Ask yourself, “Why is my boss acting up?” Maybe you’ll have more empathy for his situation.

Think about why you act up?

I know I act up and become unbearable when:

  • I’m not heard
  • I’m not noticed
  • I feel insignificant
  • I am fearful
  • I feel inadequate
  • I feel unloved
  • I feel like “what’s the point?”

So, maybe we should step into our boss’s shoes for a moment and imagine what it must be like for him to have this massive privilege and responsibility to lead us. It’s a burden that is not easily carried by everyone.

Remember, most bosses (in South Africa at least) have been pretty much emasculated because all the power lies with the employee. If he makes one slip up … off to the CCMA for arbitration or strike action. So, not only does he have to deal with his own inner challenges and that of the job at hand, he also has to navigate a minefield of sensitivity. One misstep could be catastrophic. Is it any wonder that he doesn’t hold his employees accountable (as he should) and let’s them get away with mediocre work? Is it any wonder that he is guaranteed to slip up at some time or another?

“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” Abraham Lincoln

Turn a ‘bad boss’ into a learning opportunity

If our boss is a real disaster and there’s no redeeming feature that we can ascertain, there’s only one course of action. No, not resigning 😉 Reframe the situation and see how we can turn it to our advantage.

It stands to reason that our boss was put in charge because he has some knowledge that we don’t have. His EQ might be shot, it doesn’t mean his intellect, nor his skill is wanting.

I’ll take a bet that da Vinci, Edison, Ford, Carnegie, Teslar, Ellison, Trump and Branson were (are not) easy to work for. But, man, at some level it must be so worth it just to sit at the feet of these masters and learn. That knowledge is priceless.

But, that knowledge will only be passed onto those with staying power. Those that can see the obstacle as the answer and as a way to become even better as a human being and at one’s chosen endeavour.

I come from an age when there was no such word as EQ (emotional quotient). You got a job and you were grateful for it. I’ve had some bosses were so short on EQ that they made Data (the android in Star Trek) look human (and emotional).

But, when I got my first job (1987), I made a call. I was prepared to suck up as much sh%^ as I had to as long as I learned from the experience and became better and stronger.

I’ll never forget my first boss. He owned a public relations company.

I was employed as an intern. I wrote my first press release for him. I don’t know what was worse, the look of disgust on his face or that he crumpled up the paper and threw it at me. The words he spoke are not for the sensitive.

I rewrote the press release … not once, not thrice but five times before he was satisfied. Can you imagine our boss throwing something at us today? We’d be in arbitration before the object even hit the floor.

Luckily for me he saw some tiny glimmer of potential and sent me off to a journalist friend of his who taught me how to write properly.

I quickly realised that his intention was good, even if his execution was off. I’m so glad I stuck around and saw past his bombast. Because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today.

I never took his ‘abuse’ personally because I was on a mission to succeed and saw every barb he threw at me as another reason to get better and not bitter.

“Nobody can make you feel inferior, unless you let them.” Eleanor Roosevelt

That’s my take.

It’s not always a ‘bad boss’ problem, but often a culture disconnect that cause employees to quit. And, as employees, we need to grow up and not blame someone else for our inadequacies. We need to take responsibility for ourselves and turn obstacles into advantages.

4 Comments on “Employees don’t leave bosses, they leave companies

kirsten long
March 10, 2015 at 1:15 pm

Hi Jacques, your arguments make loads of sense – talk about looking at the big picture! Working for a bad boss is a wonderful opportunity for growing your people management skills. If you “manage” your boss well and continue to do your best, you will be noticed. A Bad Boss can be a great career booster!

Jacques de Villiers
March 12, 2015 at 8:37 am

Hey Kirsten. It’s just a matter of shifting your perspective and seeing every job/boss as an opportunity to learn and hone your skills.

March 12, 2015 at 8:17 am

Thought-provoking argument. I’ve been there too, thinking I had a ‘bad boss’. Turns out, she just needed someone reliable to stick it out with her – I now see her as a mentor and leader and even a friend, not just a boss.

“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” Abraham Lincoln (Love that)

“I never took his ‘abuse’ personally because I was on a mission to succeed and saw every barb he threw at me as another reason to get better and not bitter.” (and this!)

Jacques de Villiers
March 12, 2015 at 8:36 am

It’s about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and reframing negative situations.


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