multiple exit signs pointing to the way out

Why Leaders Are Leaving

March 24, 2022 Leadership
mary slaughter
By Mary Slaughter LinkedIn

In today's talent market, it isn't just the rank and file employees who are walking away from jobs, leaders are leaving too. Asking why is a topic worth examining, as the impact of a leader’s departure is quite different than the exit of an individual contributor. Words like domino, ripple and cascading all describe the impact of a leader departing. Leaders play many roles, such as setting strategy, making decisions and allocating resources. Yet in my experience, the most significant role leaders play by far is modeling and sustaining organizational culture and values.

Leaders carry the added responsibility of visibility — their words and actions have more weight than the typical employee. Early in my career, I learned how leadership behaviors can create unintended consequences. Some of the learnings resulted from my own missteps, while other insights came from decades of observing, teaching and coaching leaders. Leaders act as megaphones. Everything they say and do has the potential to be magnified and broadcast to the masses. Much like the physical properties of sound, a leader’s impact travels around corners, moves through walls, is amplified through repeaters, and can be captured for others to experience without the leader even being present.

There are two areas of social science research that underscore why leadership behaviors matter. The first is that of normative social behaviors. In layperson’s terms, this refers to the behaviors that are viewed as ideal, accepted and encouraged within an organization. Leaders are cited as having the single greatest influence on normative behaviors, as their actions become the signal in the noise for others to follow. The second area is that of coherence. Essentially, this means things need to add up and make sense relative to one another. The proverbial puzzle pieces should fit together in a way that people can make sense of what they experience. If a leader professes one set of actions yet behaves quite differently, that failure to “walk the talk” creates cognitive decoherence in the minds of those around them. And when faced with decoherence, the human brain favors inaction — exactly the opposite of what leaders strive to create.

When leaders depart, initially there’s curiosity about destinations and titles, but the more lasting curiosity centers around why the leader left. That takes us straight to the heart of the impact. Questions about cultural fit, political support, ability to drive impact and forge relationships with other colleagues dominate the discussion. It’s in this moment when others begin to reflect on themselves, asking questions such as:

  • Do I belong here?
  • How well am I positioned?
  • Am I connected to the right people?
  • Could the same thing happen to me?
  • Should I be looking elsewhere, too?

Related Article: Leaders Are Humans Too!

Leaders Need Help

The last two years have set a new high bar for leaders. Not only have they been asked to manage all the typical leadership challenges of the past, but they’ve also had to take on the tremendous ambiguity of remote, and now hybrid, work at scale. In addition to facing their own physical and mental health challenges, they’ve been expected to support others in similar, stressful circumstances — with little to no preparation. Not all leadership departures are a reaction to the pressures of the last two years, but it’s for sure some of them are.

To lift up your people leaders, consider providing the following support:

  • Individual coaching support as a safe haven for self-reflection.
  • Skill-based programs focused on developing empathy and trust.
  • Clearer guidelines regarding expectations and the new norms of hybrid work.
  • Modeling by senior leaders of how they integrate their personal and work lives.
  • Adjustments to your benefits programs to increase mental health support.
  • Recognition of leaders who are adaptive and demonstrate a growth mindset.
  • Access to career mobility opportunities, as an internal change could be uplifting.

Andrea Derler, Visier Principal of Research and Value
Andrea Derler, PhD, is Visier's principal of research and value. Her contributions have appeared in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Chief Learning Officer, Wall Street Journal, Fast Company and more. 

Recent research into millions of employee records in Visier’s Community Database revealed a worrying trend: employees at all levels of organizations were resigning at alarming rates. Resignations by employees with a tenure of five to 10 years had grown the most between the years 2020 and 2021 (see chart), a finding that coincides with further analyses that confirmed: managers’ resignations rates were trending up towards the end of last year.

Resignation rate percentage increase between 2020-2021 by tenure

Resignation rate

Apart from the direct cost of losing a valuable employee, organizations lose out on so much more: access to the managers’ internal and external social networks, their institutional knowledge and most importantly, the bond managers may have created with their team members. The impact can be stunning. When good managers leave, team members’ attachment to the organization can weaken, as team members — who may have been relying on their manager’s support — begin to worry about their own career prospects or promotion opportunities in the organization or question their own reason for staying.

About the Author

Mary Slaughter is the Global Head of Employee Experience at Morningstar, an investment research and management firm headquartered in Chicago, IL. Prior to joining Morningstar, she served as a managing director, People Advisory Services at EY.

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