Employees quit, why do some leaders take it personally?
You’ve undoubtedly heard about the “Dear John” letter – it is the American quintessential break-up letter. A decision to resign is effectively a break-up! If I had a dollar for every time I heard about a leader reacting badly when one of their superstars quit, I’d be wealthy! The interesting question is: is this situation one of poor leadership or one of poor employee performance because it comes as a surprise to the company?
It is a good question!
A typical “I quit” example
Let’s use a case to illustrate the situation and evaluate it from both perspectives. It goes something like this:
I am resigning effective July 1, 202x, from Acme Anywhere Co., after having been offered an incredible opportunity that helps my ambition to become a VP of Sales.
I’ve really enjoyed working with you and the team at Acme Anywhere Co. and appreciate all the support over the last three years as they’ve prepared me for the new role.
Sophie receives the notice and goes from seeing Ahmed as her superstar, the guy that solved the most difficult customer issues, did so quickly, and never complained, to a traitor! She went from disappointment to anger in a heartbeat…. her thoughts swinging towards “how could he do this to me and quit after all I’ve done for him?”, “Why didn’t he tell me he was unhappy before resigning?” or “He owes me a fuller explanation, I know he’s holding something back.”
So, who is being unreasonable in this typical situation? And more importantly, what skills are missing in this case that we can learn from?
From hero to zero…the manager’s perspective
If we look at the leader’s point of view first. Sophie’s reaction is interesting because she feels that she is owed something more than the standard notice period. While each country may have different notice periods, North America is a standard 2 weeks, it goes both ways. Employment is at-will meaning employers can effectively let an employee go at any time as long as notice (and pay) is provided. When we look at it from this perspective, Ahmed is making decisions to secure his future which has a rational motivation, but is he handling it well? We will get back to Ahmed later…
The interesting skill consideration is with Sophie. She needs to reflect on why Ahmed did not feel comfortable coming and talking to her about his career aspirations or raising workplace concerns (if he had any). Could her own behaviour provide some insight in that respect?
She went from halo to horns rather quickly. Could this suggest that she is unapproachable? Or inconsistent? Perhaps difficult to talk to? Maybe it is nothing at all, and Ahmed just wants a change that has nothing to do with Sophie or Acme Anywhere Co.? In other words, is Sophie’s reaction to Ahmed’s resignation misdirected?
Leaders benefit from reflecting on whether they create a safe space where employees can raise any issue without fear of reprisals. Think about it – a secret job search is a classic example of taking on a stressful process in the hope of finding something better. Great leaders make it safe to talk about. They are open, inquisitive, and supportive and if they can, will help to address underlying employee grievances well before they reach of point of the employee wanting to quit.
So, in this instance, did Sophie take the time to ensure that each employee:
- Feels valued in what they do
- Receives recognition for their individual and team contributions
- Understands how their role connects with the company strategy
- Can influence their job and how it is done
- Is fairly and properly compensated for the role they perform
For the leader, it is about building up people in the team before it reaches a point where employees leave unhappy or frustrated.
From being in love to annoyed and then the decision to quit a role
Let’s imagine that Ahmed’s response to Sophie went something like this:
Sophie asks: “Ahmed, would you consider a counteroffer?” His reply: “That is very kind Sophie, but please don’t go through the trouble. I’ve accepted and am committed to my new role.”
Imagine that it goes a little further and Sophie pleads to know what went wrong. Ahmed’s reply: “Nothing went wrong. It’s just time for me to move on and take on a new challenge.”
In this instance, it is hard to fault Ahmed. He is polite, professional, and well within the bounds of appropriate conduct. He is choosing to quit and doing so on good terms (with the company, even if Sophie reacts disproportionately).
This is the model for how to resign professionally! Ahmed is entitled to keep his innermost thoughts and feelings on why he resigned to himself – we all are.
Employee resignations are a chance for us to reflect on the underlying team tone, company culture, and ourselves as leaders. Are we doing everything we can to create a positive working environment? One where team members thrive or are we unwittingly setting the tone for something else? A few key questions will surface the key leadership traits that we need to work on to bring out the best in other people.
Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your tips for how you have managed an ex-boss (or a current one) after quitting or how you’ve created team environments where employees are open and honest, even about traditionally taboo topics like the decision to look for a new role.
Give it a try!
Cartoon credit: Adam Huber