"People don't quit a job, they quit a boss," is a well known saying for a reason. Most of us have either exited a company because of an incompetent or unpleasant manager, or know someone (usually many someones) who has.

But does this mean that if you train your managers and generally insist on high quality leadership at your company, your retention issues are solved? Is it true that all it takes to keep talent from walking out the door is non-annoying supervision?

If you think that you're in for some pretty nasty surprises, new research out of Facebook suggests. The study of why people leave the company, one of hottest employers around, reveals that companies worried about losing superstars may be focusing too much energy on improving leadership and not enough on improving people's actual jobs.

It's not about the boss, it's about the work.

Before I run down the main takeaways of the research, it's probably worth pointing out that the vast majority of companies are not Facebook. So when three Facebook HR execs, along with Wharton professor Adam Grant, say in the HBR write-up of the findings, that "at Facebook, people don't quit a boss -- they quit a job," you should probably consider whether the same is true at your organization.

If your managers aren't up to a high standard, this research isn't a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card that gives you a pass on improving their leadership (Google's got your back with free resources if you need to work on this). Plenty of people still do quit their bosses, even if they don't do it much at Facebook.  

But that doesn't mean most business leaders can't learn something valuable from the core finding of the Facebook research project, which is, "If you want to keep your people -- especially your stars -- it's time to pay more attention to how you design their work." Whether or not you also have work to do getting your supervisors up to snuff, if one of the premier employers in the country isn't doing enough to design the sort of jobs that make superstars want to stay, chances are excellent your company isn't either.

How to design a job your superstar will love (and not leave)  

So what improvements did Facebook discover it needs to make if it wants to hold on to superstars? That's the subject of the lengthy HBR article, which is well worth a read in full if this is something that you're obsessing about. But the basic gist of the piece is that most businesses, Facebook included, don't do enough to tailor jobs to top talent. People don't fit neatly into pre-designed boxes. You need to learn who your best people are and then adjust their work to suit their skills, goals, and preferences.

Here's the money sentence from the quartet of authors: "Most companies design jobs and then slot people into them. Our best managers sometimes do the opposite: When they find talented people, they're open to creating jobs around them." How do you do that? The article offers several suggestions, including

  • Jobcrafting. Recommended by a ton of experts, this process allows top performers to shape their work to best utilize their skills and passions. You can learn more about it here, here, and here. The best managers "go out of their way to help people do work they enjoy -- even if it means rotating them out of roles where they're excelling," insists the HBR article.

  • Entry interviews. You've heard of exit interviews, but Grant and his collaborators suggest the mirror image of the idea: "In the first week on the job, managers sit down with their new hires and ask them about their favorite projects they've done, the moments when they've felt most energized at work, the times when they've found themselves totally immersed in a state of flow, and the passions they have outside their jobs. Armed with that knowledge, managers can build engaging roles from the start."

  • Easing work-life conflict. "At Facebook, our best managers work with people to minimize these trade-offs by creating career opportunities that mesh with personal priorities," write the researchers. For instance, when one star employee found international travel commitments were conflicting with caring for her baby, her manager helped her sort through her travel schedule and find alternatives for non-essential overseas meetings.

The bottom line finding from the Facebook study: "People leave jobs, and it's up to managers to design jobs that are too good to leave." Just being a good enough boss not to drive people out the door is far from enough.

Published on: Jan 17, 2018