Why Employees Stay

To explore the importance of effective management, it’s first necessary to understand what managing is and how it has changed.

Alan C. Brawn Leave a Comment
Why Employees Stay


In my articles, I tend to focus on topics we might “know of” or “know about,” but that perhaps don’t really know at an appropriate level. By reaching that level, it benefits us with more knowledge and understanding. In some cases, I reinforce a reader’s thinking; in other cases, I hope to bring new things to light. And, at my best, I aim to create an “ah-ha!” moment and motivate readers to dig deeper. 

Well…drum roll, please! There is no more important topic I can write about today than why employees stay with a company, as well as the important role that managers play in that decision. Don’t stop reading here because you think you already know. Don’t assume! I promise that there is more to know and consider. So, please, stay tuned! 

Join Companies, Leave Managers 

Let’s begin with a research report from Gallup. The report opens with an observation: “Employees join companies but leave managers.” The pollster found a difficult-to-digest truth: 75% of people quit their job to get away from their manager at some point in their career. Indeed, according to Gallup, “The number-one reason why people quit their jobs is because of a bad manager.” Employees who voluntarily left their jobs did so because of their bosses, rather than because of their position, the work itself or the salary. Despite how appealing a job might be, people will leave in the absence of a good relationship between their manager and themselves. 

If one of your goals is employee retention, then please re-read what Gallup — and subsequently others, including Harvard Business Review, Forbes, etc. — have found. Ask yourself if you really know what you need to know about managers, their contribution and their impact. And it’s not as simple as a “good” manager or a “bad” manager. 

Related: Understanding Employee Value

In an ongoing study of multiple companies and several hundred employees, associates were asked anonymously why they stayed with a company. The data showed employees stayed because of what the study called “employee inertia.” In other words, the study indicated employees tend to remain with a company until some force causes them to leave. The concept here is akin to the concept of inertia in the physical sciences — that is, a body at rest will remain at rest until acted upon by a force. Of course, this invites the question of what forces might break that inertia. 

The report found two issues at play: The first was job satisfaction, driven by job requirements and direct managers; the second was the company environment (i.e., company culture) and the degree of comfort that an individual employee feels within it. Those two issues are not mutually exclusive; instead, they overlap, with one affecting the other. Change takes place when job satisfaction and company environment turn negative, reaching an unacceptable level that initiates a force for change. 

Of course, external issues also come into play. There might be opportunities to consider at other companies. There might be personal issues, which can be the initiating force and break the inertia. But, setting those external issues aside, does it matter if companies are attentive to making their employees want to stay for job satisfaction or cultural reasons? Yes! Research shows that it makes a significant difference to the company, across metrics of performance, productivity and growth, whether employees want to stay or just feel like they have to stay. Next, let’s explore what we need to know and how management has evolved. 

Hierarchies of Titles 

The challenge of wrapping our arms around the concept of managers lies in the very hierarchy that characterizes almost all businesses. 

One subject-matter expert, F. John Reh, says it best: “Organizations are hierarchies of titles. The organizational chart or the structure of the company and the relationships of the jobs and responsibilities, from the top down, may include CEO, vice president, director, then manager. Each of these people performs separate and critical functions, enabling the organization to function, meet its obligations and turn a profit.” 

Reh goes on to point out that, the higher you climb in the organization’s ranks, the further away you move from the day-to-day operations and work of the firm’s employees. While the CEO and vice presidents focus more of their efforts on issues of strategy, investment and overall coordination, managers are directly involved with the individuals who serve customers, produce and sell the firm’s goods or services, and provide internal support to other groups. 

The C-suite and senior management sit at the top of the org chart. Think those who focus on vision and strategy. Mid-tier and lower-level management act upon the directives of upper management, and they can be most accurately referred to as functional managers. They are, in essence, the bridge to translate higher-level strategies and goals into operating plans that drive the business. Most often, these functional managers are responsible for a particular department or area within the organization. Regardless of the department — from accounting and marketing, to sales and customer support, to engineering and quality control — managers either directly lead their team or lead a group of supervisors who themselves oversee employees. 

In other words, the functional managers and their teams are tasked with making things happen. The middle manager is accountable to upper management for the performance of their area of responsibility, as well as for employee development and advancement. Equally important, they’re accountable for retention of front-line employees, which means it’s important to provide guidance, motivation and support. 

This brings to mind the personal qualities that a good manager should have. I would offer the following: 

  • Positive attitude, warmth and patience
  • Good character and honesty
  • Empathy
  • Cultural affinity
  • Competence 
  • Accountability
  • Decisiveness and the ability to prioritize 

Essential Skills 

Skills are different from personal qualities in that they can be taught and developed. The consensus of subject-matter experts is that, from an essential-skills perspective, a manager must hone and develop numerous skills while incorporating the personal qualities listed. Let’s explore them. 

  • Leadership: This is the ability to set priorities and motivate team members. It’s important to develop team members through positive, constructive feedback and coaching. 
  • Communication: It’s important to practice effective communication in all its applications — from one on one to groups — and to understand that the most important aspect of communicating is listening. 
  • Collaboration: It’s essential to support cross-functional efforts and set a good example of collaborative behaviors. 
  • Critical Thinking: A good manager reviews priorities and strives to understand where and how your projects fit into the bigger picture. The manager translates that understanding into meaningful goals and objectives for their team members. All associates want to understand how, exactly, their work fits into the big picture. 
  • Finance: Although it’s certainly not necessary to be an accountant to be a good manager, it’s imperative to learn and apply solid financial basics. 
  • Project Management: Projects can become complex and unwieldy. Managers must understand and leverage formal project-management practices to ensure timely completion and proper control of initiatives. 

The Need to Change Our Approach 

I hope that, now, we understand (at least at the top level) the concept of inertia and the forces that motivate employees to leave or to stay. In both cases, those forces relate directly to management. Now, let’s turn to the need to change our approach and be more effective managers. To paraphrase Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity, we can’t do the same old things time and time again and expect different outcomes. This certainly applies to a “conventional” approach to management. I would suggest that what we once thought of as effective management does not work as it once did — and, perhaps, it never worked. 

This is clearly illustrated in the book First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, written by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman. It’s based on in-depth interviews with 80,000 managers at all levels and in companies of all sizes. The authors write, “Great managers routinely break all the rules. They take the conventional wisdom about human nature and managing people and turn it upside down.” 

The authors’ research uncovered the four keys for how to unlock the potential of each of your employees. You must read the book to get a full explanation of each of the four keys, and it’s a journey worth taking. I’ll just summarize here. 

  1. Select employees based on talent, rather than based on experience or intelligence. 
  2. Evaluate performance based on desired outcomes, rather than based on direct control over how a worker performs their job. 
  3. Reject the conventional wisdom that people can be fixed. Focus on strengths, rather than on weaknesses. 
  4. Find the right fit for your employees’ talents. 

Characteristics of a Strong Workplace 

Perhaps my favorite part of the book is when the authors present the 12 characteristics of a strong workplace, as seen through the most successful and productive employees’ eyes. Each is presented as a question. If employees answer them affirmatively, then you have a strong workplace…a workplace where the best performers want to work and stay. 

  1. Do I know what is expected of me?  
  2. Do I have the equipment and material to do my work right? 
  3. Do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day? 
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for good work?
  5. Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person? 
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development? 
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does my company’s mission or purpose make me feel my work is important? 
  9. Are my coworkers committed to doing quality work? 
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, have I talked to someone about my progress?
  12. In the last year, have I had opportunities to learn and grow? 

Homework for Companies 

Here is the homework for companies in our industry: Look at the 12 questions and explore if your managers and management approach contribute to the attainment of affirmative employee responses. If not, you must do some work. 

A recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report said that 24% of the working population (hourly and salary) stayed with a company less than a year. The cost of this is nearly incalculable. It is clearly in companies’ best interest to develop and retain good employees. Excellence in management starts at the top, but it’s the middle managers, functional managers and their teams that make a company “work”—that make sure the company achieves all it can. 

Times have changed. Companies have changed. Employees have also changed. Success or failure for most companies will be revealed in how they approach and practice management. 

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