Bad news for companies: Your best employees will not stand for your crap.
Even worse news for companies: Your worst employees absolutely will stand for your crap.
That’s basically the takeaway from an interesting new study out of the University of Iowa, and it has implications for every organization and its workers.
Let’s break it down.
Researchers surveyed 256 architects — which is to say, they talked to people who work in a stressful industry and serve persnickety clients. The researchers wanted to know things like: How proactive are these workers? How stressed are they? Do they face a lot of problems at the office, such as office politics, lack of resources, unclear roles, and other nonsense? And most importantly, are they thinking about leaving their job?
(By "proactive," the study authors mean workers who are self-starters, actively engaged in their work, and eager to step up and take on more responsibilities. In other words, the best kind of people you could have.)
The results were fascinating. The more a worker identified as proactive, the more likely they were to consider quitting jobs with dysfunctional office environments.
Less proactive workers were also frustrated by dysfunctional companies, but they weren’t as motivated to quit.
Which means they’ll just stick around and make the company worse.
Well, let’s start here: Have you ever worked at a place full of unmotivated, dull people? I won’t name names, but I sure have. My colleagues seemed to have little career ambition, and just waited around for someone to tell them what to do. I never knew how to connect with these people, and I also never stuck around long enough to figure it out.
It left me wondering: Why are some companies full of sharp and self-motivated teams, while others are bogged down by aimless clock-watchers?
The University of Iowa study offers at least a partial answer: It’s because when companies are full of office politics, red tape, and unclear directions, their most proactive employees will peace out! That’s a huge loss, because prior research has found that proactive employees do the best work, are the most creative, and are also the most helpful.
“That’s why maintaining an office or company culture plagued by obstacles is such a problem,” says Eean Crawford, an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, who coauthored the study. “It’s a double-whammy. If our research is correct, then that kind of company is not only more likely to lose employees, but more likely to lose their most valuable employees.”
I asked Crawford how companies can avoid this fate, and he said the starting point is simple: “Our number one recommendation is to focus as much energy as possible on removing obstacles, especially for the most proactive employees.”
For example, managers should regularly ask things like, “What is getting in your way and how can I get rid of it?”
“This signals support which makes proactive employees less like to think about leaving,” Crawford says.
As I think back to my own unfulfilling work environments, this research seems to explain a lot. Those companies suffered from a lack of clear leadership and labyrinthine politics, which made me feel under-appreciated and unable to do my best work. And I wanted to do my best work — not just because I take pride in my work, but because I always saw jobs as springboards: They’re a place to learn, grow, and then leave in order to do something bigger.
If a job didn’t serve as a strong enough springboard, then it was just a weight around my feet. I wanted to get the hell out of there as fast as I could.
This research should serve as a warning for any company that wants to build great things. To start, you need a great team — which means creating a culture where great teams thrive.
Great people don't put up with crap. And they shouldn't have to.