Good managers create turnover too

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For years and years, we’ve been hearing that “People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.” Makes sense and seems logical. It would stand to reason, then, that good management skills would help you reduce churn and turnover — which could be good for your bottom line. I’ve written about all these kinds of topics literally 1,000 times — basically, very few people consider ‘talent strategy’ as anything tangible, and even fewer people actually have good management skills. (Only about 18 percent actually do).

OK, so the level-set we’ve arrived at is:

  • Good management skills = less turnover (good!)
  • Bad management skills = more turnover (bad, even if no one cares and people are seen as interchangeable)

But what if that’s not true?

The odd intersection of management skills and turnover

Here’s an article on Harvard Business Review entitled ‘Employees Leave Good Bosses Nearly As Often As Bad Ones,’ with this essential takeaway on management skills:

What we discovered was surprising. Good leadership doesn’t reduce employee turnover precisely because of good leadership. Supportive managers empower employees to take on challenging assignments with greater responsibilities, which sets employees up to be strong external job candidates. So employees quit for better opportunities elsewhere — better pay, more responsibility, and so on.

So this is kind of a Catch-22 for management, and it supports the widely-held theory of executives that people are interchangeable and processes and products make you money (in reality that’s also totally incorrect, and relationships with customers make you money).

But consider this:

  • If you have bad management skills, you’ll send people rushing for the exits — insofar as they can get someone to notice them on LinkedIn
  • If you have good management skills, you’ll still create employee turnover at your organization because the people you’ve empowered under you will ultimately be poached or leave

Interesting conundrum, eh?

Good management skills produce ‘happy quitters’

That’s a far cry from Disgruntled Dennis who heads out the door mumbling about what a wanker his boss is, for sure — and ‘happy quitters’ may still advocate for the brand while working for another company (although less so probably if working for a direct competitor). The good thing with a ‘happy quitter’ is that bridges are not burned, relationships are not frayed, and we’re all still dancing in a field singing songs — although the research does show that part of all this is tied to “effort around retention.”

That means … if the boss with good management skills is basically like “Meh, go elsewhere,” well …that’s no longer a “happy quitter.” That might be a Disgruntled Dennis.

People want to think they belong to something. They want to think they’re relevant.

If you’ve worked at a place 10 years and you’ve done pretty well — and then you go to leave because you built yourself into a viable external candidate, right? And your boss is like “Meh, happy trails!?”

That kinda makes you feel bad about the last 10 years. That was a decade of your life and it ends like that? With nary a “OMG YOU MUST STAY?!?” It cuts to the quick — and that’s where Happy Quitter becomes Disgruntled Dennis, and that’s where workplace relationships fray like an ice cream on the Houston summer sidewalk.

What does all this teach us about management skills?

Your first inclination might be “Well, you’re damned if you do … and you’re damned if you don’t!” That might be accurate. Good management skills and bad management skills drive people out in equal numbers — and good management skills probably drive out better people, who should be valued more.

I think this all comes back to a central ‘future of work’ discussion: it’s really all about opportunities for growth. People rush around shrieking that the future of work is about disruption! And collaboration! And cloud technology! And open offices! And GAHHHHHHHHHH robots will take our jobs!

It’s about some of that, sure — but in reality, here’s what it’s about. People want to work hard, care vaguely about what they’re working on, feel respected by their superiors, get paid, feel relevant, have some friends or comrades at the office, and feel like there’s a path to more money and more responsibility.

An old-school manager with shitty management skills just read that last paragraph and self-immolated: “That’s a ton of demands!”

Naw. It’s just basic human decency:

  • Can you respect others?
  • Where do I stand?
  • What’s my path through all this?
  • Who’s got my back?
  • Am I relevant / do I need to be here?

In a long, winding road then … we’ve come to a place where good management skills are the same thing as basic human decency. Yes?

The long and short of management skills seems kind of simple, thusly: strive to be a good manager, and strive to show your people where they stand and empower them. If they leave in a few years because there were more opportunities for growth elsewhere, so be it. That’s better than a phalanx of people rushing to the parking lot at 4:57pm because they can’t take your bullshit anymore, isn’t it?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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