Manager Behaviors that Drive Away Good Workers

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By Tiffany N. Kilby, MS, BCBA

Founder and Director of The Behavior Station, LLC

One thing that all fields have in common is workers.  While there are all different kinds of jobs, most jobs seem to have a hierarchical structure in which there is at least one position of management that oversees the work of others.  Managers (i.e., people in management positions, though the title may differ by field or company) have a very important task; managers’ behaviors can, and often do, directly affect the behaviors of the workers in the company.

In an Inc. article, Dr. Travis Bradberry lists 9 Things That Make Good Employees Quit.  In the article, he wrote, “Managers tend to blame their turnover problems on everything under the sun, while ignoring the crux of the matter: people don’t leave jobs; they leave managers” (emphasis added). 

Dr. Bradberry’s “9 things” that lead to good workers quitting are listed below, followed by a quote from each section.  Because these “9 things” are behaviors (or groups of behaviors), each quote is followed by how to interpret this from a behavior analysis perspective.

Overworking People: “Overworking good employees is perplexing; it makes them feel as if they’re being punished for great performance.” 

Behaviors are lawful; appropriate work behaviors are no exception.  Behaviors are maintained by their outcomes (i.e., desirable or unwanted consequences).  Therefore, the amount of work put in must closely match the outcome (e.g., pay rate, promotions, title-changes). 

An argument to this might be: People should be intrinsically motivated and want to do their work because it’s the right thing to do.  Yes, to some extent that is true.  However, on the other hand, the company should be prepared to compensate their hard workers.  The hard workers are not asking for anything for free; they are earning it.

Not Recognizing Contributions and Reward Good Work: “Everyone likes kudos, none more so than those who work hard and give their all.”

Even for people who behave in desirable ways because of intrinsic motivation, it does not mean that they do not value recognition of their hard work.  If it is true that “everyone likes kudos,” it does not mean that everyone likes kudos in the same way.  As recommended in the article, and as recommended in behavior analysis, managers should find out what individual workers prefer as recognition for their hard work (e.g., an email with positive feedback, public recognition, a raise).

Not Caring about Workers: “Smart companies make certain their managers know how to balance being professional with being human.”

Embedding compassion and empathy into training could be beneficial for companies, and workers, as a whole.  From a behavioral standpoint, managers who are too friendly can be just as dangerous as managers who do not care about their workers.  It is crucial to have clear boundaries, and for managers and bosses to balance professionalism and compassion. 

Not Honoring Their Commitments: “When you uphold a commitment, you grow in the eyes of your employees because you prove yourself to be trustworthy and honorable (two very important qualities in a boss). But when you disregard your commitment, you come across as slimy, uncaring, and disrespectful.”

When you were little, weren’t you always told not to make promises you could not keep?  When did that stop applying to adults in business?  Making promises is a behavior that should always be operating under that rule: only make promises you will follow through with.  This is not to suggest that a manager must do everything they talk about; there is a difference between making a promise and discussing a situation that is hypothetical or needs approval.  In certain situations, it may be appropriate to clarify if what is being stated is a commitment or an idea in the works (e.g., “We are promoting you,” versus “We are thinking about creating a new position that you have the qualifications for”).

Hiring and Promoting the Wrong People: “When managers don’t do the hard work of hiring good people, it’s a major demotivator for those stuck working alongside them.”

Demotivator is a very strong, and telling, description.  Managers should never provide “demotivators” for workers.  Many human behaviors operate based on motivation.  A “demotivator” is still a motivator; put simply, a demotivator is a motivator to avoid or leave a situation. 

This is not to suggest a person will always quit their job when they are “stuck working alongside” someone who is not a hard worker; rather, the good worker might just avoid being directly around that person.  An everyday example of this is rain: Rain is a demotivator to walk outside; however, one might have to go outside so they take an umbrella to walk outside while it is raining. 

Not Letting People Pursue Their Passions: “Many managers want people to work within a little box. These managers fear that productivity will decline if they let people expand their focus and pursue their passions.”

Putting someone to “work within a little box” can make them feel entrapped and banging to get out.  The worker might start doing anything to get out of, or avoid, the situation; these behaviors might be maladaptive and even counterproductive to their job duties.

Failing to Develop People’s Skills: “When you have a talented employee, it’s up to you to keep finding areas in which they can improve to expand their skill set.”

This recommendation is beneficial not only for the worker, but also for the company.  It is always beneficial for workers to continue learning and growing as professionals. 

Failing to Engage Their Creativity: “If you take away their ability to change and improve things because you’re only comfortable with the status quo, this makes them hate their jobs. Caging up this innate desire to create not only limits them, it limits you.”

Anything that limits both the worker and the company cannot be beneficial for either party.  CEOs, Managers, employees, independent contractors… everyone should always be learning and changing their behaviors to make themselves, and the company they work for, better.  While it is appropriate to have boundaries and parameters for changes, it should not be impossible.

Failing to Challenge People Intellectually: “Good managers do everything in their power to help them succeed.”

Good bosses are good leaders.  When a manager leads workers in the right direction, it helps set them up for success.  When a manager creates and maintains a supportive work environment, it promotes an environment that is reinforcing (i.e., valuable) to workers.   

Bringing It All Together: To bring together his list of what makes good workers quit, Dr. Bradshaw wrote, “If you want your best people to stay, you need to think carefully about how you treat them. While good employees are as tough as nails, their talent gives them an abundance of options. You need to make them want to work for you.”

From a behavior analysis standpoint, we understand that most of what all humans do is learned behavior.  Therefore, at the end of the day, behavior is at the core of all business.  So let’s translate this to 9 groups of behaviors that managers should do to keep their workers happy:

  1. Provide Workers with An Appropriate Amount of Work (for them)
  2. Recognize Contributions and Reward Good Work
  3. Care about Workers
  4. Honor Their Commitments
  5. Hire and Promote the Hard Workers 
  6. Let People Pursue Their Passions
  7. Develop People’s Skills
  8. Engage Workers’ Creativity
  9. Challenge Workers Intellectually

When managers behave with purpose, and keep their workers happy, workers will be lining up to work with them, rather than running for the door. 

How would you modify Tiffany’s list?  Let us know in the comments below and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Tiffany N. Kilby, MS, BCBA

Tiffany N. Kilby, MS, BCBA is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) for children with autism and developmental disabilities for a private company providing applied behavior analysis (ABA) services.  She has also founded an organization, The Behavior Station, to disseminate behavior analysis and its resources.  Her passion for ABA stems from her passion for raising autism awareness in honor of her family members on the autism spectrum.  Tiffany learned about ABA after she decided to work in the field of autism; she was instantly impressed by the high standards and science of behavior analysis.  Her enthusiasm for learning more about ABA led her to attend Florida State University’s ABA Program, where she received rigorous training in ethics.  In addition to being members of local, state, and national ABA associations, she is the Ethical/Professional Special Interest Group Chair for the Florida Association of Behavior Analysis, Treasurer of the Gold Coast Association for Behavior Analysis, and a volunteer for the Association for Science in Autism Treatment.  Tiffany aspires to continue learning about the field and also help bridge behavior analysts and the world together.

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