Turns Out, Employees Don’t Actually Leave Managers!

For decades we’ve been telling leaders this one thing about employees and retention. We’ve said it so much, it’s actually become ‘common’ knowledge we take for granted. It’s this one phrase:

Employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers. 

Have you used this phrase? Of course, you have! Everyone in HR has used this!

New research has come out from IBM’s Smarter Workforce Institute, “Should I Stay, or Should I Go?” that has actually proven our ‘common’ knowledge is wrong:

“Managers are not the reason most people leave – 

• Contrary to many media reports, only 14 percent of people left their last job because they were unhappy with their managers.

• The biggest work-related reason (cited by 40 percent of respondents) for leaving is because employees are not happy with their jobs.

• Almost as many people (39 percent) left their last job for personal reasons such as spouse relocation, child care or health issues.

• One in five (20 percent) workers left because they were not happy with their organization.

• Eighteen percent left due to organizational changes which had caused a great deal of uncertainty.”

This isn’t some small study of a hundred employees. IBM looked at data from 22,000 employees!

So, why has this concept of employees leaving managers become so wildly accepted and popular amongst HR leaders and pros?

You won’t like this answer, but we liked using this reason for employees leaving because it meant it wasn’t our problem. I mean it was our problem to help fix, but it wasn’t our fault. It was those stupid managers!

So, we’ll coach them up. Give them soft skills training. Talk down to them like their children, and help them become ‘leaders’. IBM didn’t actually say this was the reason, this is my own reasoning. It’s just super comfortable to give this explanation to why we have high turnover.

The reality is if employees leave there are likely numerous reasons all of which are probably centered on a bad employee experience. They were unhappy because of something. It might have been because they were working for a crappy manager, but it also might be they just made a bad fit decision in the job they choose to accept, or culturally the fit wasn’t good with your organization and the employee.

One thing is certain. Employees, the majority, don’t leave managers. They leave your freaking company. That’s not our manager’s issue, it’s all of our issues. Today’s challenge? Stop using this phrase and start taking ownership of your employee turnover!


8 thoughts on “Turns Out, Employees Don’t Actually Leave Managers!

  1. The data is the data and you make a good point.

    Ironically, not 30 minutes before reading this I was getting my haircut at Sports Clips one town over. The young, lady cutting my hair worked at Supercuts in my hometown previously. I asked her, “Did you not like Supercuts? I mean why travel here to cut hair?”
    She replied, “No, I really liked Supercuts. But I couldn’t work for the District Manager anymore. In fact, they just called and asked if I would return and the first question I asked was ‘Does so-and-so still work there?’ When they said yes, he did, I told them that I wasn’t interested.”

    For better or worse, to most team members, the manager is the face of the company. We’ve all seen people stay with lousy companies b/c they love and are loyal to the manager, and we’ve seen people leave what are perceived to be amazing companies for the reverse.

  2. Adding to what the others said…I was thinking about Millenials, a generation that grew with technology in an ever-changing environment.

    A high percentage spend an average of 1-1.5 years in a company, why? Lack of challenges, lack of career opportunities (this is where managers and the organizational culture are highly involved), lack of recognition (monetary and non monetary).

    This article talks about this: https://goo.gl/DDBGmX

    We need to empower them to avoid turns out.

  3. I find the study very interesting and disagree with your finding. When asked the question why they left they did not directly say their manager but if you dig into the report it was usual based on something the manager had some control over. Like keeping poor employees on the team.

  4. The notion that “people leave managers” WAS accurate — until Millennials became the largest part of our workforce. As we now know, Millennial employees are motivated differently than Boomers and Gen Xers, and that is probably what is bringing about this change.

    Fact is, this change away from managers being the cause of employee departures has probably been going on for a while as Boomers slowly depart. It’s taken time for that notion to change, but is has — although not entirely as 14% STILL say managers are what make them want to go.

    • Actually studies show Millennials do leave companies because of managers. Given the way they desire interaction, given the leadership styles they prefer if they fill like it’s not a fit. They are leaving so we can’t disregard this and say they don’t leave managers

  5. The problem with the IBM study is that it thinks employee unhappiness with manager and job are mutually exclusive – they aren’t…

    A big part of the manager’s job is to get the grunt work done, but also show the employee how they can be developed and yes, happy, even if parts of their job sucks. Most managers just shrug and say, “that sucks for you” without any other type of framing/help.

    That’s the reason the IBM study is under-representing the power of the manager in direct report happiness.


    • Yeah, what he said. Why does their job suck and who is responsible for making their job better? Their manager! That’s not blame, that’s accountability. HR can and should help.

  6. I am really starting to like you. For far too many years I have been saying the “people leave managers” mantra is crap. Unless you work for a tyrant beast who is on your neck (literally) every moment of the day, you don’t really have a lot to do with your manager most of the time. People leave companies for at least a hundred reasons. They offered me more money, free lunch, a car, a bigger office, a nicer office, a uniform, an expense account. It is closer to home, to school, to shopping, to restaurants. They have free parking, it is close to the train/bus. There is greater promotional opportunity. I like their product. My friends work there. They have hotter men/women/etc. Better dress code. I am just bored with my current job. I want to try something different. Better benefits, a retirement plan, better technology, a jogging track, etc etc etc. There are a thousand reasons people leave jobs, none of them having to do with their managers. I have left jobs where I had superb managers (still friends with some of them) but I wouldn’t pass up a great opportunity (whatever that may be to each of us) just because of a manager. That was always a false statement. I don’t disagree that a great manager instill better productivity/creativity/results, but none of those things really affect the individual employee. It is time to put the old thinking crap ideas away.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.