Employees leaving bad managers – what kind of actionable feedback does this provide the manager?

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The Manager by Designsm blog advocates a new field, “Management Design” that encourages the creation and ongoing improvement of managers by design, rather than by accident. Today’s “designs” are usually a series of accidents and default efforts by individuals who have been put in the position to manage. Too frequently, managers are required to make up their own management practices, and these practices end up being highly variable and often result in common management mistakes and cost a lot to organizations and the economy.

One practice that rarely occurs when a manager is left to his or her own devices to develop management practices is the creation of a method for employees to provide feedback to the manager. The result is a series of default methods that managers use to get feedback on their managerial performance. This is the first in a series of blog entries on how managers receive feedback on their performance.

It is important that managers receive performance feedback on how they manage, as performance feedback provides the most immediate means for managers to change what they are doing for the better. Performance feedback can stop bad behaviors quickly, and encourage good behaviors over the long term. Because of this, the Manager by Designsm blog provides many tips on how to provide performance feedback to an employee, as this is a key skill in being a great manager.

But who provides the feedback to the manager? And who would be able to provide feedback on the effectiveness of a manager’s actions than the manager’s employees? Aren’t the employees receiving the “managerial service” from the managers to help them be more productive and be happier in their role?

However, there aren’t many channels for employees to give feedback to their manager.

In today’s discussion, we’ll explore a common way managers receive feedback on their management: The employee who leaves, also colloquially known as “voting with your feet.” How effective is this at providing feedback to a manager? Let’s see:

Voting with your feet leaves a cryptic or even contradictory message

Leaving a manager for another position (usually as far away as possible from the existing manager) is perhaps the most common way for an employee to give feedback to their manager. This list provides the top 10 reason people quit jobs – and they all have to do with management mistakes.

However, leaving a job doesn’t really constitute “feedback,” since the employee who leaves rarely provides detailed information about what the boss did to make the job worth leaving. This may be the first instance where the manager is willing to ask, “What could I have done differently?” but the employee isn’t likely to supply much info.

Instead, when employees quit, they typically provide a vague or cryptic message (“I’ve been looking for exciting new opportunities”) or, more likely an outright lie (“I love it here, but there are some exciting opportunities I’ve been looking to pursue.”) This is appropriate, because it is in the employee’s interest not to burn bridges, “You didn’t do this, you didn’t do that. . .now I’m leaving!” And given that managers aren’t necessarily good at providing feedback, should we expect employees (especially unhappy employees to be good at providing feedback?

The manager may read between the lines and interpret the cryptic, vague dissatisfaction, and take ownership of his behaviors that may have contributed to the employee leaving. But this is not likely at all, and even if the manager did some introspective work to identify what could have happened differently, there is certainly nothing actionable for the manager to work on. Instead, what typically happens is that the manager writes the history for why the employee left (“They weren’t the best fit”) and continues the same behaviors.

So when it comes to voting with your feet, it is a great way for an employee to solve the problem of having to deal with a bad boss, but it is a terrible way for managers to get feedback and learn how to manage better. It sends a message, but the message is entirely unclear.

Voting with your feet + exit interview – brings HR into the mix, but how much?

Sometimes an employee will leave an organization and be asked to conduct an exit interview. Typically this occurs with the HR department. The dynamic doesn’t necessarily change. The employee has the same balance to strike in providing information about why they are leaving, and provide the same vague message about “new opportunities” or “need for a change.”

Many times, the HR representative won’t even bother asking questions that could get specifics about what precisely it was that caused the employee to seek new employment. Instead, it may be a general discussion about the overall experience and perhaps an inquiry as to whether the employee may want to come back in the future.

In this discussion, the actual reason for leaving is rarely found, and certainly there is no specific and immediate feedback provided to the manager.

But let’s say there is! Let’s say that the employee actually cites what it was that the manager or management team did that made the employee seek a new role. In this case, the organization is reliant on the HR representative to get that feedback to the manager. This is not a high percentage proposition. The HR representative is most likely to simply hold on to this information rather than address it directly with the manager. The HR representative isn’t necessarily incented to give this feedback to the manager, and the manager, were he or she to receive the feedback, would still have the benefit of having actually been there, and can assert arguments for why that feedback is incorrect. The HR representative realizes that this feedback is going nowhere, and is subsequently trained not to bother with giving this feedback in the future. The exit interview becomes “reference” information that becomes anonymous and goes to reports department heads in summary form during the people review.

The distance between the poor management behaviors and the feedback is too far

There may be situations where a manager actually hears from the leaving employee why she is leaving. Most likely, these events happened or started happening months, if not years ago, and the employee simply made the decision to leave instead of systemically addressing it with the manager. This is often the easier path for the employee, especially, as we have established, if this is perhaps the first moment where the manager might be willing to listen to the employee (now having quit) as to what he did wrong.

With time and distance from the behaviors that caused the employee to seek a new role, the details become murky, the incidents blend together, and the leaving employee is likely to provide vague generalizations or value-judgments, “You didn’t support me” (generalization) or “You were always such a tyrant” (value judgment). The details about what the manager didn’t support or what behaviors were seen as tyrannical are lost. With this general or value-judgment laden language, the manager is likely to discount it as being incorrect, just an employee would if the manager gave that same kind of feedback to the employee. Unless the employee is highly skilled at using behavior-based language and can cite specific actions by the manager and suggestions what to do differently (it is possible!), the feedback will not be effective.

The incentive to see the manager improve is not there

Those who provide performance feedback should have a sincere interest in seeing the person receiving the feedback improve. Problematically, the leaving employee doesn’t have much interest in seeing the manager improve. In fact, the employee who is fed up with the manager’s poor management ability perhaps wants to see that manager keep failing, as it validates the choice to leave.

Ergo, the leaving employee doesn’t help the manager improve

Nonetheless, when an employee votes with her feet, it is perhaps the most common — and first — way for managers to get “feedback” on their management skills. Sadly, the feedback is delayed, vague, not actionable, and even non-existent, other than a vague sense of “I did something wrong.” Even the most earnest manager has no ability to improve based on this, so as a design, this fails at providing performance feedback to a manager.

I’m very supportive of people leaving bad managers – as this solves the frustrated employee’s problem immediately. But it doesn’t mean that the manager will change behaviors.

In my next blog post, I explore another way managers receive feedback on their performance: Attrition rates

Do you have stories about explaining why you quit? As a manager, have you ever received actionable information from an employee who left?

Related posts:

Making it a mandatory meeting sabotages the meeting

Why asking for loyalty discourages high performers

Why the annual performance review is often toxic

When an employee does something wrong, it’s not always about the person. It’s about the system, too.

A tool to analyze the greater forces driving your employee’s performance

The Cost of Low Quality Management

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


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