• Published February 1, 2024
  • 8 Minute Read

Why Employees Want to Leave (or Stay With) Their Organizations

Published February 1, 2024
Why Employees Want to Leave (or Stay With) Their Organizations

The Absence of Support Makes the Heart Wander

It’s a normal business day. Employees are steadily working away, responding to emails, sending chat messages, and making calls. This is, of course, encouraging to their bosses and the organization.

All seems well, but instead of working on their projects, how many of them are actually working hard at polishing their résumés and actively looking to leave? It could be more than you think.

To retain talent, organizations need to pay attention to what triggers employees to want to leave in the first place.

It’s often said that “people don’t quit jobs, they quit their bosses,” and that is true, but realistically, organizations are probably unable to identify and get rid of all the bad bosses. What organizations can do is to bolster the positive aspects of work that boost employee engagement and motivation.

So a key question is, what will be effective in encouraging employees to stay put, even if their boss isn’t the best?

Why Employees Want to Leave: Lack of Support

To answer this question, we conducted a study to look at the importance of support from the organization and from their boss to determine why employees want to leave or stay with their companies. We also looked at how different combinations of that support factor into employees’ decisions to stay or go somewhere else.

As our white paper explains, we found that:

  • Managers who were the most satisfied with their jobs, the most committed to their organizations, and the least likely to leave were also the ones who felt the highest levels of support — from both their organization and boss.
  • Managers who had low job satisfaction, the least levels of commitment to their organizations, and were most likely to leave reported they felt the lowest levels of support from their organization and boss.

This was true for first-level managers and mid-level managers.

No real surprise with these findings — people who feel supported are committed, satisfied, and want to stay. Employees who don’t feel supported are not committed, dissatisfied, and are more likely to leave.

Organization Support vs. Supervisor Support: Which Matters More?

Not everyone feels the same amount of support from their organization as they do from their boss. Some may feel they have the best boss in the world who gives them all the support they could ever want, but also feel their organization doesn’t care about them at all.

Others may feel that their organization provides them with growth opportunities and cares for their wellbeing, but that their boss is nowhere to be found when it comes to providing support.

So, what’s the consequence when managers experience an imbalance in support from their organization and boss? And is it the same for first-level managers and middle-level managers?

Our study found that it varies by leader level.

For first-level managers, one source of support is no more important than the other. First-level managers reported about the same levels of turnover, commitment, and satisfaction if they had high levels of support from the boss and low levels of support from their organization, or vice versa. No one source of support is more important than the other for first-level managers; they need to feel they’re supported by both their boss and organization.

On the other hand, for mid-level managers, the level of support from their boss matters much less than the level of support from the organization. If organizational support is lacking for middle managers, the level of support they receive from superiors doesn’t matter. Middle-level managers are going to be less committed to their organization, less satisfied with their jobs, and more likely to leave for other opportunities.

In fact, middle-level managers with an unsupportive boss can still feel committed to their organizations, satisfied with their jobs, and be unlikely to leave — as long as they feel supported by the larger organization.

Show Your Employees Support So They Don’t Want to Leave

As we’ve noted, satisfaction and commitment are at their highest, and intention to leave and turnover are at their lowest when managers receive support from both their supervisor and the organization.

You can never have too much support, but all sources of support do not have an equal impact on the experience of all employees.

Showing Support to First-Level Managers

People who are at the first levels of management are often managing for the first time in their lives. They need — and respond to — support from both their own boss and their organization.

Think about the challenges that first-level managers face when they step up into management. New managers have to move away from doing the work that made them successful and promotable, and move toward coaching, developing, and motivating others to do the work — an identity shift. And, they’re probably managing people with whom they used to work side-by-side: their former peers and, oftentimes, current friends.

This transition takes a lot of mental, emotional, and physical effort, and new managers must change their ways, habits, and values. This is why careers sometimes derail at this stage. And this is why a lot of support from numerous sources is invaluable to first-level managers.

Bosses can provide support to their first-level managers by:

  • Reinforcing desirable behaviors;
  • Providing coaching and mentoring programs, which are especially critical for new leaders;
  • Acting as a shoulder to lean on;
  • Being a sounding board;
  • Giving a voice to others in decision-making processes;
  • Treating people fairly in allocating resources and communicating exactly how decisions are made;
  • Communicating with people about their value;
  • Letting them know how their work matters to the effectiveness of the group, to the bottom-line of the organization, or how what they do benefits the organization or even larger society (purposeful leadership); and
  • Providing formal recognition.

Explore more ways to set your first-time leaders up for success.

Showing Support to Middle-Level Managers

For middle managers, it’s possible to feel high levels of job satisfaction and commitment and have low intention to leave — even with an unsupportive boss — provided they’re in a supportive organization.

Why the difference? We believe it has to do with the unique challenges and struggles middle-level managers must face in their job on a daily basis that makes support from their organization so critical. They have to work across diverse functions, operations, and boundaries; manage organizational politics; and select and lead managers for high performance. And it’s getting harder to keep them. A Gallup poll shows that, from 2020 to 2021, the percentage of people managers who reported feeling burned out often or always increased from 28% to 35%. Another study shows that managers’ resignation rates rose from 3.8% in 2021 to 5% in 2022.

More than first-level managers, middle managers need leadership skills, including the ability to balance competing demands from upper-level management and lower-level employees, and the expertise to work across organizational groups and systems. Boss support may not affect their satisfaction, commitment, and turnover levels, because no one single person can be the end-all fixer for these huge organization-wide challenges. Rather, it takes support from the organization as a whole (groups of people, systems, and processes) for middle managers to effectively perform their jobs.

Middle-level managers may be able to get by without the support from their boss, as they probably get support from other people such as trusted peers, their own subordinates, or others who are in their network over a longer period of time.

So what can be done so that middle managers feel that their organization supports them? There are several HR practices, programs, and strategies that can increase perceptions of organizational support:

  • Having systems in place that support and reinforce learning;
  • Making it known where the organization’s culture embraces learning and development;
  • Developing a culture of feedback and building coaching skills;
  • Implementing systems to help people identify development needs and ways to cultivate or strengthen those needs;
  • Making resources available for learning;
  • Rewarding efforts for personal development;
  • Hiring from within; and
  • Redesigning jobs to increase the scope of responsibility and to ensure value is clear.

Ensure Employees Want to Stay, Not Leave, Your Organization

In closing, our study found that the absence of support truly does make the heart wander: Employees want to leave organizations that make them feel unsupported. This is especially true for mid-level managers, who are more likely to quit an unsupportive organization than an unsupportive boss.

So, to reduce employee turnover, and maintain your company’s leadership pipeline, pay close attention to how you show support to your managers. Certainly, boss support of development opportunities is important, but in a more general sense, you need a culture that shows you value your people.

Your HR department should do everything possible to bolster your employees’ perception that they are supported.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

If you find yourself asking why employees want to leave, build your organization’s future success (and make employees want to stay) by exploring our leadership training programs for first-level managers and middle-level managers.

Based on Research by

Bill Gentry
Bill Gentry, PhD
Former Director, Leadership Insights & Analytics and Senior Research Scientist

Bill’s research at CCL focused on examining what leaders, particularly first-time managers, can do to be successful in their work and life, and to avoid derailment. He’s the author of Be the Boss Everyone Wants to Work For: A Guide for New Leaders and co-author of the guidebook Developing Political Savvy.

Bill’s research at CCL focused on examining what leaders, particularly first-time managers, can do to be successful in their work and life, and to avoid derailment. He’s the author of Be the Boss Everyone Wants to Work For: A Guide for New Leaders and co-author of the guidebook Developing Political Savvy.

Why Employees Want to Leave (or Stay With) Their Organizations
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