It’s pretty incredible how often you hear managers complaining about their best employees leaving, and they really do have something to complain about—few things are as costly and disruptive as good people walking out the door.
But managers tend to blame their turnover problems on everything under the sun while ignoring the crux of the matter: people don’t leave jobs; they leave managers.
Bad management does not discriminate based on salary or job title. A Fortune 500 executive team can experience more dissatisfaction and turnover than the baristas at a local coffee shop. The more demanding your job is and the less control you have over what you do, the more likely you are to suffer. A study by the American Psychological Association found that people whose work meets both these criteria are more likely to experience exhaustion, poor sleep, anxiety, and depression.
The sad thing is that this suffering can easily be avoided. All that’s required is a new perspective and some extra effort on the manager’s part to give employees autonomy and make their work feel less demanding. To get there, managers must understand what they’re doing to kill morale. The following practices are the worst offenders, and they must be abolished if you’re going to hang on to good employees.
Withholding praise. It’s easy to underestimate the power of a pat on the back, especially with top performers who are intrinsically motivated. Everyone likes kudos, none more so than those who work hard and give their all. Managers need to communicate with their people to find out what makes them feel good (for some, it’s a raise; for others, it’s public recognition) and then to reward them for a job well done. With top performers, this will happen often if you’re doing it right. This doesn’t mean that managers need to praise people for showing up on time or working an eight-hour day—these things are the price of entry—but a boss who does not give praise to dedicated employees erodes their commitment to the job.
Overworking people. Nothing burns good employees out quite like overworking them. It’s so tempting to work the best people hard that managers frequently fall into this trap. Overworking good employees is perplexing for them as it makes them feel as if they’re being punished for their great performance. Overworking employees is also counterproductive. New research from Stanford showed that productivity per hour declines sharply when the workweek exceeds 50 hours, and productivity drops off so much after 55 hours that you don’t get anything out of working more. Talented employees will take on a bigger workload, but they won’t stay if their job suffocates them in the process. Raises, promotions, and title-changes are all acceptable ways to increase workload. If managers simply increase workload because people are talented, without changing a thing, these employees will seek another job that gives them what they deserve.
Holding people back. As an employee, you want to bring value to your job, and you do so with a unique set of skills and experience. So how is it that you can do your job so well that you become irreplaceable? This happens when managers sacrifice your upward mobility for their best interests. If you’re looking for your next career opportunity, and your boss is unwilling to let you move up the ladder, your enthusiasm is bound to wane. Taking away opportunities for advancement is a serious morale killer.
Management may have a beginning, but it certainly has no end. When blessed with a talented employee, it’s the manager’s job to keep finding areas in which they can improve to expand their skill set and further their career. The most talented employees want feedback—more so than the less talented ones—and it’s a manager’s job to keep it coming. Otherwise, people grow bored and complacent.
Playing the blame game. A boss who is too proud to admit a mistake or who singles out individuals in front of the group creates a culture that is riddled with fear and anxiety. It’s impossible to bring your best to your work when you’re walking on eggshells. Instead of pointing fingers when something goes wrong, good managers work collaboratively with their team and focus on solutions. They pull people aside to discuss slip-ups instead of publicly shaming them, and they’re willing to accept responsibility for mistakes made under their leadership.
Frequent threats of firing. Some managers use threats of termination to keep you in line and to scare you into performing better. This is a lazy and shortsighted way of motivating people. People who feel disposable are quick to find another job where they’ll be valued and will receive the respect that they deserve.
Not letting people pursue their passions. Talented employees are passionate. Providing opportunities for them to pursue their passions improves their productivity and job satisfaction, but many managers want people to work within a little box. These managers fear that productivity will decline if they let people expand their focus and pursue their passions. This fear is unfounded. Studies have shown that people who are able to pursue their passions at work experience flow, a euphoric state of mind that is five times more productive than the norm.
Bringing It All Together
If managers want their best people to stay, they need to think carefully about how they treat them. While good employees are as tough as nails, their talent gives them an abundance of options. Managers need to make people want to work for them.
What other mistakes kill morale? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below, as I learn just as much from you as you do from me.