Employees Don’t Quit Their Job – They Quit Their Boss

Why do employees quit their jobs? Study after study shows the main reason employees jump ship is a bad manager.

Why do employees leave their jobs? Study after study shows the main reason employees jump ship is a bad manager. And while you might think of a “bad boss” as one who sexually harasses employees or terrorizes them with a hair-trigger temper, it’s rarely that extreme, says James Manktelow. Bad (and mediocre) bosses usually have good intentions; they’re just poorly trained. But in times like these, they can’t afford to stay that way.

“Unemployment rates are incredibly low right now,” says Manktelow, coauthor along with Julian Birkinshaw of Mind Tools for Managers: 100 Ways to Be a Better Boss. “In a tight job market, you must do everything possible to create a company where employees want to stay.”

In other words, being a good boss is a tall order. Doing a good job of it requires training, the right tools, and lots of feedback—and very few managers and leaders get these things.

Here are a few tips to create the kind of workplace culture that will attract the best and brightest—and keep them from leaving.


Work effectively with people from all generations

While you shouldn’t overemphasize the differences between Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y, neither is it a good idea to ignore them. For instance, if you are a Baby Boomer with a team of Gen Y employees (a.k.a. Millennials), don’t resist their preference to work virtually or use collaboration tools (email is old school), and be more proactive when giving recognition and praise.


Listen carefully and intensely to your employees

In their survey, the authors found that 65.9 percent of managers think careful listening is one of the most important methods you can use to understand and motivate people. It helps you understand what upsets the people who work for you so you can help overcome challenges.


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It also helps you appreciate what excites and energizes your team so you can shape their work in that direction. Active listening—where you make a conscious effort to hear what the other person is saying and understand the complete message—helps make employees feel heard.


Give effective praise and recognition

54.8 percent of survey respondents view giving praise as one of the most important ways to get the best from their people. Gallup has identified significant increases in helpfulness, cooperation, punctuality, attendance, and length of service associated with receiving regular praise.

Look for opportunities to give praise. Be specific and do it in an appropriate way—some people love public praise while others are embarrassed by it. And be sure that praise is honest and proportionate. Insincere praise will weaken employee trust.


Help your employees develop self-confidence

People want to feel good about themselves and their abilities. They want to be successful at work. When you build your employees’ self-confidence, you’ll help them achieve both goals. One smart strategy is to create mastery experiences for them. Set small goals that allow them to demonstrate to you and themselves that they have mastered a skill—then you can move on to set progressively harder challenges.


Give good feedback

In the authors’ survey, they found 66.9 percent of respondents believe high-quality feedback is the most important thing you can do to develop good people. Yet it’s very easy to give feedback in the wrong way. If you do, it can backfire and damage your relationships.


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Give feedback often—vastly preferable to saving it all for the dreaded annual review—and give more positive feedback than negative. With negative feedback, stick to hard facts and don’t generalize. Otherwise you end up trying to justify subjective views, which the other person may well challenge, leaving them feeling aggrieved and angry.


Motivate on an individual and team level

“Because so much work is done in teams, it also makes sense to address motivation at that level,” says Birkinshaw. “If you can get a handle on the common motivators for people on your team, you can structure the way they interact with each other, which in turn will help them get the best out of their work.”


Engage their passion with transformational leadership

To get the very best work from someone, you must engage their passion and sense of meaning in life. This is what truly keeps people at their jobs. The concept of transformational leadership, first introduced by James MacGregor Burns in his 1978 book, Leadership, is a process where “leaders and their followers raise one another to higher levels of morality and motivation.”


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Bernard M. Bass later developed the concept of transformational leadership further in his 1985 book, Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations. Follow Bass’s four main directives for becoming a transformational leader: lead by example, stimulate people intellectually, help your people grow as individuals, and inspire them with a compelling vision of the future.


Handle poor performance quickly

When you don’t deal with poor performers, it puts a lot of pressure on other team members. This can cause high performers to leave.

Poor performance has two basic sources: low motivation and low ability. There are many ways to deal with the former, including smart job structuring, support, feedback, and coaching.


Winning the talent war

“The same skills that collectively make a person a great boss also create a deeply engaging culture that nurtures and excites employees,” says Manktelow.

“You might even call it an unquittable culture. This is the Holy Grail for any company and not just during times when a talent war is heating up. No company can outperform competitors if its employees just don’t want to be there.”


James Manktelow and Julian Birkinshaw are co-authors of Mind Tools for Managers: 100 Ways to Be a Better Boss. James Manktelow is founder and CEO of MindTools.com. He has written, edited, and contributed to more than 1,000 articles, more than sixty workbooks, and seven books and e-books on management and leadership, including Manage Your Time and Manage Stress. Julian Birkinshaw is professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, deputy dean for programs, and academic director of the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School. He is the author of fourteen books, including Fast/Forward, Becoming a Better Boss, and Reinventing Management.


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