‘People leave managers, not companies’ - but is the manager really at fault?

Blog posts

19 Oct 2023

Zofia Bajorek

Dr Zofia Bajorek, Senior Research Fellow 

When we think about our experience of work, we can often connect how we feel to how we are managed, well this is true for me at least! Many of us will remember a time when we have been ‘managed well’ and have felt supported by our managers to achieve our best potential and have our wellbeing cared for in a sympathetic and sensitive way.

Unfortunately, others will recollect managers who have made work an uncomfortable place to be (whether intentionally or not), possibly resulting in negative implications on their commitment and job satisfaction. On some occasions this may lead to employees leaving, driven by wanting to find a more supportive employer. Managers as ‘gatekeepers’ to positive and desirable outcomes in the workplace often come under-fire, but are they solely to blame?

A new report by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) argues that there is need for better management in UK organisations, especially as we are emerging from (hopefully) the COVID-19 pandemic, but still have stubbornly low levels of productivity, with recruitment and retention becoming priority areas for organisations in light of the tight labour market. The report highlighted a number of key findings around the role of managers in relation to employee behaviours, and the seemingly lack of organisational help or support for managerial development. Findings included:

  • Only 27 per cent of employees in the survey assessed their manager as highly effective, and those who rated their managers as ineffective were far less likely to have job satisfaction or feel personally valued or respected at work.
  • Half of those who rated their manager as ineffective also reported planning to leave the organisation in the next year, with 28 per cent of employees having already left a job because of a negative relationship with their manager.
  • Employees placed a higher priority on empathy and understanding than managers. Employees also rated making unbiased decisions and addressing bad behaviour higher on managerial priority lists than managers.
  • 82 per cent of respondents were ‘accidental managers’, those who have found themselves in managerial positions without having any formal training for the role (training for managers was also found lacking in a recent CIPD survey). Nearly a fifth of managers reported not being confident in leadership abilities, with 60 per cent saying that they were confident but would still require further development.

The CMI argues that there is a need for better trained managers to improve their efficiency, ability to manage change and sustain good management practice. To do this, organisations need to ‘do some digging’ to know where management skills gaps are, after which organisations can then ‘commit to raising skills’ by training and equipping managers with the tools they need. 

I would argue however, that by only doing this, organisations would be at risk of falling into the ‘training trap’ and more needs to be done to rethink what we mean by good management, and how we get the best out of people undertaking management roles. Here are some of my considerations when thinking about improving managers for the future:

  • Organisations need to recognise that managers are important, and not everyone could, or indeed should be managers. Are organisations having honest conversations with employees about whether this is the right role for them?
  • Should we start thinking about an employee’s desire and ability to manage versus their technical ability? Is it time to stop awarding managerial positions for having climbed up the ‘greasy management pole’? Just because people are technically skilled in their role this does not mean they are intrinsically and extrinsically motivated to manage and have the ability to do so.  When this is the case, it is usually the important people management aspects of the role that suffer.
  • What other resources do managers need to succeed?  It is not only their ability in the role that matters, but do they have the support from HR, other managers and organisational stakeholders to undertake the role, and do they have the time to do the role justice?
  • Are organisations thinking about the management bandwidth? Causes of poor management are also related to role conflict, role overload and role ambiguity, with organisations and HR often unclear about what they want their managers to do, and this is further exacerbated if managers lack necessary support.  Managers are at risk of becoming even more ‘squeezed’.
  • Finally, little attention is being paid to the wellbeing of managers themselves and how this could be affecting managerial practice – the wellbeing of all staff needs to be high on organisational agendas.

It has been suggested for some time that the stunted productivity growth in the UK could be explained by ‘poor management’.  If organisations keep promoting people into managerial roles without ensuring that they have the right skills, competencies or desire to manage, and then stretch them in both time and resources, managers will feel the squeeze and continue to be ineffective.  Organisations have a real challenge here, but also a real imperative to get this right.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.