Like Your Boss? That Won’t Stop You from Quitting Your Job

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People don’t quit their job, they quit their boss, or so the conventional wisdom goes. But a new study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Pennsylvania State University suggests our knee-jerk assumptions about why people seek out new opportunities may be all wrong.

Enjoying a fantastic relationship with their boss has relatively little bearing on whether a person decides to quit their job, according to professors Sumita Raghuram and Ravi Shanker Gajendran. In fact, the better your boss is at encouraging your career development, the more likely you are to seize a new opportunity at another company, according to their research, which will be published in the journal Personnel Psychology.

“Having a good relationship with your boss does reduce turnover to some extent, but given its relationship with improving job satisfaction and commitment, you would expect that it would also prevent people from leaving an organization,” Gajendran, a professor of business administration at the University of Illinois, said in a statement. “If you’re making people happier, it should stand to reason that they’re more committed to the organization. But the numbers don’t bear that out.”

Skilled workers who have been nurtured by their managers are often able to command higher salaries and snag positions with greater responsibility at a new company, which encourages them to leave, the researchers found after interviewing 128 people who had once worked for an Indian tech company. Participants were asked about why they left the company, their feelings about their previous employer, and whether their former boss had made any effort to encourage them to stay.

“What we find is, if you have a good manager, they’re going to invest in you, they’re going to develop you, you’re going to become a better, more competent employee, which also means you’re more in-demand as a worker,” Gajendran said. “You could move up in the organization, but that path may not always be available.”

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Yet losing these highly qualified employees isn’t always a bad thing for companies, Raghuram and Gajendran argue. Ex-employees who have positive feelings about their former employer “can be valuable resources for organizations,” they wrote, helping companies attract new business, get access to outside knowledge, and recruit new employees through positive referrals and word of mouth.

Alumni who had a good relationship with their boss “may be more likely to participate in these value-creating opportunities due to feelings of obligation and reciprocity, and the positive opinions they hold about their former employers.”

The researchers also found that an employee’s last few days on the job had a big impact on how they viewed the company in the future. A quick exit interview and a perfunctory handshake may leave someone feeling like they weren’t appreciated by the company. Instead, the researchers suggest bosses make an effort to encourage departing employees to stay (even if they know they’re likely to decline to do so).

“If managers don’t make an attempt to retain an employee, the employee thinks, ‘Look, I put in all this effort and no one seems to care…’ Those ex-employees are less likely to help the organization later,” Gajendran said. “Managers who make a good-faith attempt at retaining the leaving employee actually elicit the most goodwill from alumni.”

All this isn’t to say people won’t quit if their boss is truly terrible. Half of people surveyed by Gallup in 2015 said they had left a job to get away from a bad or incompetent manager. The survey also found good managers were essential to promoting employee engagement, but few managers – just 18% – had the talent needed to motivate their employees and build trusting relationships with them.

Yet even if the few good managers out there do all the right things – like coaching people, avoiding micromanaging, and helping their staff with career development, according to a survey by Google – it might not be enough to make people want to stay if they believe they can do better elsewhere.

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