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Why Do People Leave Their Jobs, Exactly? The Entire Reason Can Be Summed Up in a Few Sentences

As a leadership coach and consultant, I spend considerable time combing over exit interview reports, feedback instruments, and employee engagement surveys to determine the causes for employee turnover at client companies.

Let me simplify the root of the problem. If you're an executive, senior manager, or HR leader concerned with a revolving door at your company, start by looking at your managers.

In Gallup's 2013 "State of the American Workplace" study, Gallup CEO Jim Clifton summarized in a succinct sentence the bottom line of why your company's employee turnover may be high:

The single biggest decision you make in your job -- bigger than all the rest -- is who you name manager. When you name the wrong person manager, nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits--nothing.

It's the manager.

This is the conclusion Gallup drew from decades of data and interviews with 25 million employees. Yet, here we are in 2021 in the middle of a pandemic, and organizations continue to get it wrong. We've heard this tune before: People leave managers, not companies.

The fastest way to plug the employee turnover drain is to hire and promote those who have leadership competencies. Far too often, decision-makers reward behaviors falsely perceived as actual leadership skills: confidence, charisma, extroversion, executive presence, and the like. Worse, they put too much focus on past performance, and overrate the importance of resumes, hard skills, and technical expertise.

The reality is the most narcissistic bosses with psychopathic tendencies also possess those qualities, much to the detriment of their teams. As decision-makers identify their current and future leaders, they should be looking for the esteemed traits that research has affirmed will lead employees to perform at the highest level.

1. Empathy

In one notable study, empathy rose to the top as the most critical driver of overall performance for leaders. Specifically, the ability to listen and respond with empathy. A leader displaying unconstrained empathy will naturally foster strong personal relationships and promote productive collaboration. They'll think about their team's circumstances, understand their challenges and frustrations, and know that those emotions are every bit as real as their own. This helps develop perspective and opens team members to helping one another.

2. Shared accountability

Next time you're faced with an obstacle, flip the "we have a problem" narrative into an opportunity to find solutions by promoting and encouraging open dialog with your team. This requires the safe sharing of ideas and the practice of nonjudgmental listening. By sharing in the decision-making process, your team will feel a sense of contribution and responsibility in building a culture of accountability and respect. This culture--one that empowers and raises people up through interpersonal relationships--will lead your company or career in a direction you can be proud of.

3. Vulnerability

When it comes to leadership competencies in work cultures of trust and transparency, one emerging skill is often cited that trumps both confidence and charisma: vulnerability. Over 42 million people have watched Brené Brown's historic Ted Talk, The Power of Vulnerability. Since it went viral, vulnerability has established itself as a critical soft skill to develop as a leader. One way to develop your vulnerability is through sharing stories.

In their book Encouraging the Heart: A Leader's Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others, leadership experts James Kouzes and Barry Posner stress the importance of leaders using storytelling to develop trust. The authors quote Howard Gardner, a renowned Harvard scholar, psychologist, and educator:

The artful creation and articulation of stories constitutes a fundamental part of the leader's vocation. Stories speak to both parts of the human mind -- it's reason and emotion. And I suggest, further, that it is stories of identity --narratives that help individuals think about and feel who they are, where they come from, and where they are headed -- that constitute the single most powerful weapon in the leader's literary arsenal.

Recounting a story about a critical mistake, as an example, is one way to allow for a more naturally vulnerable conversation. When you plan the use and execution of storytelling, you'll reap the advantages it has in building trust.

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