Why People Leave Companies

Have you seen postings on LinkedIn reinforcing that old aphorism: You join a company but leave a boss?

I used to think this was true. At one point, I felt like Murphy Brown, only instead of a rotating parade of crazy assistants, I had crazy bosses. I quoted that aphorism a lot, but I stuck around, and eventually I got a crazy boss that understood me and let me do what I did best.

And I did my best to be the kind of manager that my employees would never leave. But people are people, and I know I didn’t fill the needs of every employee on my team – no one could, that’s unrealistic. And people chose other paths for a number of reasons – sure, some didn’t like me. Others didn’t like the company. One person didn’t want the promotion I kept encouraging her to take. Others outgrew their jobs or wanted to apply their skills in a different context. Were they quitting me? Some did. Some didn’t like the fact that I wanted them to change their behavior, or that I wasn’t putting up with their BS anymore.

Eventually I was done with my job, I wanted to go, and it wasn’t because of my boss – he was still encouraging me to reach for the stars and providing support to get there. But there were other things going on at the company, things I didn’t approve of, the culture was changing and not in a way I liked. When I left, I didn’t leave my boss, I left the company.

For a few years before I left, I heard similar from my peers who were leaving their jobs and I innocently believed that it was specific to my company. Then, as I spoke to others in the industry, I believed it was specific to the industry. But, after I left, I spoke to more people in other industries. And I’ve been watching what’s happening in DC and I’ve come to believe that the aphorism is bunk.

Yes, you may leave a crazy boss – and, if you have a crazy boss, please do leave, for your own sanity. But really you’re leaving an organization that allows that crazy boss to be crazy, that promoted them into that position, that supported them because “they got results” even though their behavior contradicted the core values that the company purported to embrace. Or because they were bringing much-needed change to a mature organization – leave aside the fact that the changes or the way they were bringing change were detrimental to the long-term company culture and the success of the organization.

I also noticed that a lot of the people leaving were women of a certain age. Women who had worked for the company for a long time, who knew how to get things done, how to hold it together. Women who worked hard, stayed late, and put up with a lot of bullshit because they were loyal to the organization as a collective of people they cared about, women who were interested in profits only because profits = the continued existence of a company that promoted things they believed in and that employed people they cared about. I know some men also feel this way but I’ve heard it expressed this way more often by women. When they discover that the organization doesn’t feel the same way about itself, and doesn’t value them for that loyalty, they become disillusioned and, although they worry about what would happen to the people there without them, they eventually leave because they would probably go insane if they didn’t.

And do you know what, my ladies? The organization survived without them. They could have left at any time and the organization would have continued to exist – that’s the end-purpose of almost every organization out there, to continue to exist. It might not exist the way that you’d like it to, and all those people you care about might be miserable for awhile and might need to go find new jobs eventually, and that’s ok – life is change, nothing but change. Life that doesn’t change is either history or death, and even those change as more information comes to light or gets forgotten (history) or as the corpse decays (death).

And if your organization doesn’t continue to exist, that won’t be your fault. If you’re leaving for the reasons that I stated above, then your organization doesn’t deserve to exist and your being there wouldn’t stop the inevitable slide into oblivion.

So that’s my thought for the day: when you quit a job, you’re not quitting your boss, you’re quitting a dysfunctional organization that empowered that boss and supported that boss despite their behavior.

What do you think?

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