Do Employees Really Leave Managers, Not Companies?

There is a famous quote, attributed to Marcus Buckingham: 

“People leave managers, not companies”

– Marcus Buckingham

It’s taken from his book that I highly recommend that all managers read, called First, Break All the Rules

For a long time, I agreed with this quote and used it to hold myself to as high a standard as possible as a manager and leader. Even when I started my own company, I kept this quote in the back of my mind and taught it to my managers for the same reason.

The thing is, with time and experience, I’m not so sure if it’s actually true. In fact, I’ve started to wonder if it’s actually healthy because if we take what the quote implies and flip it around, it also means that employees are loyal to managers, not companies. I’m not sure if this is a good thing, hence it playing on my mind a little.

Today, I want to share some of my thoughts on this subject and also give you some actionable takeaways to think about. 

Where does this quote come from?

Despite my recent(ish) reservations, I actually quite like the quote, hence using it in my own work for so long (I read the book by Marcus Buckingham 14 years ago). It does have merit and after all, was based on a very large dataset of 80,000 managers across 400 companies.

The data led to the identification of 12 elements of employee engagement. These are:

  1. I know what is expected of me at work.
  2. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  3. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  4. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  5. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
  6. There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  7. At work, my opinions seem to count.
  8. The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
  9. My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
  10. I have a best friend at work.
  11. In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.
  12. This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

There is a consistent theme that flows through most of these elements – most can be controlled to some extent by someone’s manager.

Hence, the famous belief that people leave managers, not companies. 

So, the source of this quote and belief is rooted in data and if we look through the elements of employee engagement above, they make perfect sense.

The positives of this quote

As mentioned, I’ve believed in the idea that employees leave managers, not companies for a long time now. So I want to share a couple of reasons why, before talking a little more about it’s potential pitfalls.

It nudges you towards taking ownership

I’m a big fan of taking ownership as a manager, even if sometimes it can work against you. No matter what, I think it’s a mindset that drives you to be better and is a net positive for you and those around you.

I think that believing that people leave managers, i.e. you, not companies, gives you a huge nudge towards focusing your time and attention on what you can control and influence. It prevents you from believing that someone’s lack of engagement and ultimately, their reason to leave your company, is out of your control.

Therefore, even just believing in the quote can have a hugely positive impact on your own tendency to take ownership of your management. 

It encourages you to receive feedback

If you subscribe to this idea that your team become disengaged and leave a role because of you, then you’re much more likely to take on board their feedback on what you can do better. This is an extension of the previous point on taking ownership. 

Essentially, you’re extra aware that in order to do a good job for each of your team members, you need to be open to their feedback and adapt your working style to each of them. Otherwise, you have very little chance of being an effective manager. 

Related: as a leader, it can sometimes be difficult to get actionable feedback from your team. If this is the case, try the start, stop, continue method which is super simple and very effective.

The negatives of this quote

Whilst not immediately obvious, there are some downsides to believing in this quote too, particularly if you take it a little too literally. Let’s explore some of them.

You put far too much on your own shoulders

This is the extreme flipside of the positive point above on taking ownership. Generally, taking ownership is a good thing and I’d be extremely encouraging of it. But it does have downsides. 

If you take the quote “people leave managers, not companies” far too literally, then you can find yourself in a position whereby you take ownership and responsibility for everything and it becomes far too much for you.

Not only is this a bad mindset to have, but it’s just not reasonable or fair for you to be in control of everything. 

You take someone leaving personally

I was guilty of this for a long time, particularly in the early days of my own agency where I felt that I wasn’t just in control of managing someone, but also in control of the company as a whole. 

Think about it, if you truly believe that “people leave managers, not companies” and then someone who you manage leaves, then it’s your fault, right?

The logic says so, after all and again, this is a natural consequence to you taking this quote too literally.

Sometimes, people just leave and it’s no one’s fault

This is a big one and I’ll be honest, it took me a long time to understand it. Whenever someone left, I needed to find a logical reason and this reason needed to be something that I could “fix” in the future and not let happen again.

Objectively, there isn’t anything wrong with this stance and on some occasions, you can indeed learn something from the reasons why someone is leaving. 

But not always. 

Sometimes, people just leave. You couldn’t have stopped it and there isn’t anything to learn from it. And that’s okay. But hanging onto the belief that people leave managers will not help you to see things this way.

You don’t mitigate the impact of the wider company

This quote puts the emphasis very much on you as a manager and frees the company of any accountability for employee engagement and retention. Suffice to say, this is wrong.

Yes, the scales are heavily tilted towards what you can do, but a smart manager understands that there is much that is beyond your control. 

For example, when you look at the wider company, you’ll probably notice things such as:

  • Processes that dictate how you run pay reviews and award promotions.
  • Resources that they provide (or don’t provide) that enable you to give clear career progression.
  • How much budget and freedom you have to provide training and development.
  • The culture and leadership style of key leaders such as founders or CEOs.

Depending on how good the company is, you’ll need to take steps to mitigate any negative impact of these kinds of things. Either way, believing too much in the concept that people leave because of you, rather than because of the company, can steer you away from this mitigation and solely towards what you can do.

Team members become loyal to managers, not companies

Finally, I think that another negative aspect of this mindset is that it can encourage a style of management whereby team members are loyal to their manager and to each other as a team. This can lead to a team mentality of looking out for themselves and not wanting to play their part in the bigger picture of the company.

The negative consequences of this aren’t obvious at first because with the right manager and team, you get a very high performing, high retention team. 

However, in the long-term, you end up with a siloed team who want to do things their own way and don’t put the company first, they put each other first. This loyalty, whilst understandable, can be damaging to the wider culture of the company.

To wrap up

In summary, whilst well intentioned, I’d advise caution when actioning the quote and when using it in your own approach as a manager. I’d recommend using it as a way to encourage ownership and high standards, but not allowing a company to escape or bypass it’s own responsibilities when it comes to employee engagement and retention.

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