Toxic was the Oxford word of the year, and it increasingly seems we can’t escape it. Earlier this year, several posts on toxic leaders prompted some vigorous online discussion. The outrage against bad bosses comes with good reason. Gallup polls generally cite bad bosses and poor leaders as the most cited reason for individuals to quit their jobs. People don’t quit jobs, it’s often said, they quit bosses.
Blaming bosses may be an easy way to look at it, but poor management, while easy to blame, may be less the cause of employee attrition than we think. If we dig deeper, we see that it might not be the bad boss that’s the problem, but how a lack of leadership creates an environment where employees are failing to grow, develop, and expand their skills.
Adam Grant and a team of Facebook managers reported on this phenomenon in an article for Harvard Business Review. In analysis of exit interviews, Facebook found it wasn’t bad managers that caused employees to leave – it was the work. Flying in the face of the old adage, Facebook employees weren’t leaving because of their bosses, they were leaving because of their jobs. Employees left because they weren’t growing, they weren’t learning, and they weren’t enjoying their work.
Obviously, management can take the blame here – even if employees aren’t directly calling out their bosses as the reason they quit, a better boss may have engaged and developed them in a way that would make them stay. But the study fairly emphasized that even in an organization filled with great leadership, there are critical steps organizations need to take to ensure they can keep their talent.
What Makes Employees Stay?
In Facebook’s study, they found that employees who decided to stay with the company were 31% more likely to find their work enjoyable, used their strengths 33% more often, and had 37% more confidence they were gaining the skills they needed to succeed in their careers. There were clear correlations between employee engagement and enjoyment and a likelihood of staying with the company. When you’re considering what employees are most likely to jump ship, consider who’s burnt out, who’s miserable, and who doesn’t seem to have a career trajectory. If you have employees who are any of of these things, your management obviously needs to take some critical steps to help right the ship.
Another key lesson learned in Facebook’s analysis was the benefit of hiring a person, versus hiring for a job. What does that mean? Sometimes an individual brings truly unique and valued skill sets to the table, that may or may not fit into his or her current role. An old school argument would say that if the job doesn’t fit the person, you have to change the talent. In today’s tight candidate market, it may be better to change the job description.
You might argue this is impossible in a government contracting environment – employees have to fill specific contract requirements, after all. Meeting the requirements is more important than fulfilling one individual’s longing to enjoy their job.
The need to meet the criteria is obvious, but most contracting teams are filled with a diversity of roles. Smart contractors need to think big picture about their hires. If you trust your contract employees to create their next job with your company, they will also likely be creating your next revenue stream – adding value by expanding the capabilities you can offer the customer, and making your services and skills so unique and invaluable, they can’t imagine working without you.
Don’t leave employees out of the equation when considering your company’s growth. And contract employees – don’t shortchange your ability to add value by creating your next job – and making it one you enjoy. Even in a transactional government contracting environment, don’t sell yourself short and start seeing yourself only as a list of certifications with a security clearance. Be a career entrepreneur, pioneering your way into your next position, and showing how you can add value to your company at every step.
As Facebook found, “People leave jobs, and it’s up to managers to design jobs that are too good to leave.” That kind of improvement doesn’t happen at the HR level, but needs to be taking place manager by manager, and contract by contract.