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If Employees Quit Because Of Managers, Why Not Fire All The Managers?

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar August 09, 2017

A well-known saying goes: "People don't quit organizations; they quit managers". According to this saying the number one reason employees quit their job is because of the discontent with their manager. While this is a bit of an exaggeration (it's the number three reason), the truth is that it is an important reason for low employee retention rates.

Therefore, the important question is: What to do about it? Well, there is a number of practical ways to establish a so-called zero tolerance for bad leadership.

Destroying dysfunctional hierarchies

At some of the most progressive organizations around the globe we did not spot a single manager. It seemed that those companies had opted, at some point in their existence, to get rid of their dysfunctional management layers. And if they did not completely remove their existing management layers, then at least they found other inventive ways to push most of the management activities down to the people who are actually executing the work.

Smash 1

At the majority of progressive organizations you will not anymore be able to find the concept of the traditional manager (although there are also inspirational organizations with clear functional hierarchies in place, like - as contrary to popular belief - Patagonia).

This doesn't mean, however, that progressive organizations are without any form of hierarchy or leadership. Often the artificial hierarchy that resides in the organizational chart is replaced by a more natural and fluid one.

Let's discuss some of the possibilities to establish a zero tolerance for bad leadership.

1. Let's fire all the managers

The nurses of Buurtzorg, the civil servants of municipality Hollands Kroon and the production workers of Morning Star are just a few examples of employees that do not take orders from managers. Simply because there are no managers to give any orders.

The leaders of those progressive organizations don't believe in the traditional concept of managers. And we are not just talking about small companies here. Buurtzorg, for example, employs over 14.000 nurses

By removing the existing management positions these companies liberate many people from positions in which they are simply wasting their potential. We would argue that the majority of people in management are in the wrong position; they're not in the place where they could add the most value to the organization.

Rather, they are promoted to the place where they're 'supposed to be' according to outdated management thinking. In many cases this will eventually lead to high levels of incompetence as perfectly illustrated by a concept called 'The Peter Principle'.

The Peter Principle

The Peter principle is an interesting concept from the Canadian scholar Dr. Laurence J. Peter. He published his theory in a little book called "The Peter Principle" in 1989.

The concept is based on the logical idea that competent employees will continue to be promoted till a certain point where everyone will be promoted into positions for which they are incompetent. Once people are promoted into a position of incompetence they often will remain there due to the fact that they do not demonstrate any further competence that would get them recognized for additional promotion. According to the Peter Principle, all the ranks in a traditional hierarchy will eventually be filled up by employees who are incompetent to fulfill the job duties of their respective positions.

The employee's inability to fulfill the requirements of a given position is often due to the fact that this particular employee simply doesn't possess the skill set that is required for the respective position. Think about the many brilliant engineers that are forced, often against their will, into management positions...

Instead of promoting people till their position of incompetence, we need to realize that all people have different skills, abilities and talents. And if organizations want to be able to benefit from the full potential of their people they should help them to fully make use of their skills, abilities and talents.

2. Let people select their leaders

Another way to establish a zero tolerance for bad leadership is by letting employees select their own leaders. There's a wide variety of ways to do it. From a democratic voting process and from picking your own mentor or leader to having an alternating leadership position in the teams.

These leaders are mostly chosen because they're good in 'leading', not because they excel in their particular job. In such environments, if you have the ambition to become a leader, you better make sure to find some followers first.

In traditional hierarchies, people are promoted into a position of incompetence.

The people that are stripped from their management positions are not left behind either. In fact, it seems to be the contrary. They are highly valued for their particular skill set and the organization will try to do everything in their power to make them feel like that. They will, for example, be involved in important decision making and strategic thinking.

They are just not put in charge of leading other people anymore. Unless, off course, that's something they excel in as well.

Henry Stewart CEO of British IT company Happy described it accurately: "People should be chosen to manage people on the basis of how good they are at managing people." It means that at his company anybody who manages people has been chosen. They are chosen because they have the potential to be great at leading people.

In some cases the leaders need to have certain minimal requirements to be elected in the first place. For example, the teams at FAVI (a French automotive supplier) elected their own leaders. But their leaders are always operators that have been working for several years within the factory. In FAVIs case the level of education was, for example, of no importance.

3. Let people evaluate their leaders

Even if the two above options are too radical for you, there is another alternative: let teams regularly evaluate their leaders. At UKTV for example, leaders are evaluated on a range of different skills on a regular basis. At UKTV, they even make the results transparent to the entire organization, not just the individual teams.


Such a practice results in a growing appreciation of good management. And that's a good thing, because we all know that bad management creates stress, reduces engagement and lowers productivity.

Former CEO of FAVI, Jean-Francois Zobrist, took the evaluation a step further. At his house in the North of France he shared a powerful act with us. During his time as CEO at FAVI, he wanted his own leadership performance to be regularly evaluated.

Zobrist: “I offered my resignation letter every 5 years because I know that power can get you mad. I wanted to provide the company with the opportunity to act in the best interest of the organization when something like that would happen to me. Moreover, I could have featured the qualities and weaknesses that were well suited for the organization at that particular moment in time, but the same qualities and weaknesses might have become a burden at another time in history."

At the Swiss based global human resources company Haufe-Umantis they go to the next level. Employees elect their entire senior leadership team, including its CEO, in a democratic process.

In the process, potential candidates nominate themselves for the leadership roles and subsequently employees vote anonymously for their number one favorite, the results are then shared internally. And they repeat this process every single year!

Bye bye bad leadership

To ensure a culture of good leadership in any organization, the above approaches can be very powerful. It's all about creating an environment where artificial hierarchies are eliminated and natural leadership arises.

Establish zero tolerance for bad leadership: let employees evaluate and select their own managers.

It's all about creating an environment where staff evaluates and elects their own leaders and where the leaders provide the staff with the support and freedom to execute work in the best way they can. As Henry Stewart already told us: "In the end the best person to decide who will best support them in development and delivery, is that person themselves."

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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