One of my favorite things about having studied art and literature is how often and how much we were encouraged to develop our own interpretations of what is laid out in front of us.
I mean, think about it, in a world where so many ideas are meant to be seen as concrete (or black and white), where history (no matter how skewed in favor of the victor) is not to be questioned (or “changed”), where math is often to be solved in a particular way, and where science is to be structured and methodical for the sake of safety or accuracy – art and language are the first areas where we as people and as students are not asked to recite information but rather to reflect on it.
In school, time spent reflecting was often my favorite time spent. Poetry allowed someone like me, someone with an overactive mind, to relish in the multiple trains of thought that could be pulled from a single line. And in college, I found comfort in surrounding myself with people who enjoyed doing the same.
As an adult, however, I’m not sure I still hold the same fondness for interpretation as I once did. Part of this is because, outside of novels, poetry, and literature the loudest voices are often the ones who speak for attention rather than speaking with intention. Part of this is because the same people who wrote off writing as just a “required credit” class are now in charge of sharing vast amounts of information and can’t seem to do so in a clear, concise, or even logical way. But mostly I think it’s just because a lot of voices lack real creativity – which is just to say that we get the same rehearsed rhetoric (the same full stop labels) over and over and over again without a consideration of whether it actually applies to the topic being discussed.
That said, this week I read a take (one that was thankfully not political) that made me roll my eyes. It read (paraphrased), “employees don’t leave bad companies – they leave bad managers.” And truthfully (and probably obviously since it inspired a blog) the quote boiled my blood a bit – and let me tell you why…
Let’s stop pretending managers are the problem
According to some light research – the original phrase (that inspired the one I found as well as dozens of other articles) was, “Employees don’t leave companies – they leave managers.” [Marcus Buckingham, First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently] and it first appeared in Marcus Buckingham’s: First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, in 1998. And while I have no doubt that one company or another didn’t try to use that excuse before Mr. Buckingham put it in a book, his study of more than 80,000 managers gives it (his book) a fair amount of credibility. However, the fact that this idea is still being used today, more than 20 years later, has proven to me that bad managers aren’t the problem – the companies are.
Accountability would never
Have you ever heard that saying… the one about the head of the snake? “Cut the head off the snake and the body dies.” Usually it’s used to explain war scenarios – suggesting that taking out the head of an army will stop the rest. A similar idea exists in the advice crime show cops give to criminals about to go to prison – they say to find the biggest guy in the yard and take him down because no one will mess with you after that. Then of course there’s the less violent ideas. The ones about top down leadership and how older siblings should set a good example for the younger ones. And at this point I know what you might be thinking, all of these examples seek to prove the importance of managerial leadership, right? And sure, in a way they do but let me ask you something – what do a general, a criminal, a manager (boss), and an older sibling have in common?
Accountability from the bottom up
Now, don’t get me wrong, a bad manager can certainly make or break a job. Even sources outside of business support the idea that good leadership makes a good team and success and so on and so forth. Great teams win super bowls, Ted Lasso (obviously the other kind of football), yada yada. But what all these people have in common is not that they have a team or that they have people working or existing under them — the real thing they have in common is that none of them have a final say in decision making. The real commonality that they all share is that NONE OF THEM HAVE REAL POWER – but they all are held accountable for the ones who do.
- Generals might make calls and lend advice but they still have to report and follow the orders of the commander and chief (or whoever has total control of military forces).
- Prison inmates can assert enough dominance to have power over their peers but they will still be at the mercy of whoever owns or controls the prison system (not just the prison but the system).
- Managers are also just foot soldiers – whether they report to another manager or the c-suite, no matter what they do or how good they are because they still have to follow the guidance, orders, or examples of the people above them.
- And eldest siblings? Well until they are old enough to support themselves or become a cog in the bigger machine they report to their parents or guardians. (duh)
History is written by it’s victors – but wars are won by its soldiers
Remember earlier when I was rattling off subjects that are more concrete than art or literature? I talked about how history is not to be questioned even if it’s bias favors the victor. Well, this same sentiment also applies to business and business writing. Business narratives are vastly determined (and recycled) by looking at successful companies and emulating their processes to (hopefully) replicate success in other settings.
In grad school, a large part of my study was looking at case studies that compared various marketing strategies. Many of which talked about how brand recognition (or company recognition) which is arguably one of the most important aspects of the marketing process, drove sales as much as product does. (Nike for example – the quality might not be the best all the time but people recognize the swish and possibly respect you more for it.)
See, unlike art and literature business isn’t to be interpreted on a creative level because unlike art and literature business is communicated more with numbers and data than it is with words or emotions. From a business perspective this way of communicating is great because it gives companies proof that certain processes work and others do not. After all, data drives strategy and strategy drives business, right?
Well…yes, but also… not exactly.
A company is nothing without its workforce
I think the reason it’s easy to make a statement like “Employees don’t leave companies – they leave managers.” Is because of how easy it is to take the human aspect out of business.
I mean, if you think about it, bad managers aren’t all that dissimilar to bad ex’s. When someone is hired or when we bring someone into our lives it isn’t just because they are qualified, it’s because they have something that will add value to us and to the team. And because managers often have to start at a lower level and learn the business to take a more substantial leadership role in it – it’s fair to assume that that “bad manager” is a product of whatever system (in this case – the company) that created them.
In other words it’s just as easy to say, “Employees don’t leave companies – they leave managers.” As it is to say, “It’s not personal, it’s just business;” because in the business world words matter less than numbers do. So it’s easy to look at a lull in profits,target a low performing team, and blame one person “in charge” rather than admit that, “Hey this keeps happening. It used to feel random but this person has been here for a while so maybe it’s the values we are promoting in our company. Maybe it’s the conditions that the company creates for its workforce. Maybe we should consider that something we did went wrong to make them lead this way.”
Trading in spin for substance
At the end of the day, there is a place for interpretation in all aspects of life, even business and history – but I think we need to be more careful with who we allow to write the story.
The United States isn’t the only country that allows the few to try and manipulate and dictate the identities of the many. The United States isn’t the only country that often favors spin over substance; but seeing that the US is the country I live in, it’s arguably the only one I am qualified to speak of.
Anyway, if it wasn’t already made clear, I personally don’t subscribe to the idea that employees leave managers rather than companies. Maybe this is because I have had very few bad managers, but more so I think it is because (speaking from my perspective as someone in my generation) there has been a paradigm shift in this country when it comes to accountability. For me it is less important who I work under and more who or what I work for.
So sure, a good manager is important to me, but what I hold most important is that we stop blaming one or two bad people for a system we are all existing under and feeding in to.