Project Management

Why Employees Leave Culture

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by Jen Skrabak, PfMP, PMP

Most people leave organizational cultures, not managers.

Organizational culture is defined as the collective behaviors, thoughts, norms and language of the people in the organization that signifies the "way of working." It represents the overall support system and resources of the organization. 

For example, if employees regularly start meetings late, then the culture of the organization may be to begin meetings late ("it's just the way things are"). Newcomers quickly learn this unwritten norm, and adapt to the late meetings, further propelling the status quo.   

It's important to understand that people leave organizational cultures because portfolios and programs can represent significant change to the organization—requiring new ways of working, behaviors and new operating agreements defined to support the change. However, if the organization is resistant to change—and the traditional ways of working remain—how do you change the culture?

First, let us understand why people leave the organizational culture and what we can do to model the right behaviors as leaders:

1. Misaligned Vision and Leadership

A common complaint is that there is "no perspective of where the organization is headed and not being able to see how my role fits into the bigger picture."

Leaders, starting at the top, must role model the behaviors they expect. Rather than simply talk about the vision or the strategy, they must roll up their sleeves to translate the vision very specifically and tangibly into everyone's work.

This is typically done through the strategic portfolio—employees identify with a stack ranking of strategic initiatives that communicate the most essential programs and projects of the organization. Each executive sponsor must then clearly translate the vision into day-to-day actions that the program or project is implementing. 

The strategic portfolio represents the "better state" of the targeted culture— what are the behaviors, ways of working, thinking and norms that need to be in the future. This is codified typically through team charters, operating agreements, and ground rules so that everyone on a team follows the same rules and ways of working.

2. Compromised Values, Beliefs and Increased Toxicity

When employees feel they are being coerced into doing things that don't align with their values, they will find other places to use their talents. Behaviors that result during large scale change may be burnout, rumors, and change fatigue.

Mediocrity may have been accepted as good enough, resulting in high performers, leaving the organization due to lack of challenge and opportunities. However, for those that remain, it may be difficult to absorb change since they never had to. 

As a portfolio or program leader, you don't need permission, budget or authority to start acting in ways that model high performance. Recognize and reward the right behaviors and call out the wrong behaviors. 

Growth needs to be the focus—desire is a powerful emotion—more than the fear/doubt that is often the first reaction when encountering change. The first emotion is Fear/Doubt. Left unmanaged, this can spiral into water cooler conversations, negativity and constant churn. 

However, having a growth mindset means that there are opportunities created from changing and learning new skills that can propel that organization to embrace new ways of working.

 3. Organizational Structures and Processes that Create Stagnation 

Not having structured processes that support high performance creates an environment that people leave. No one wants to stand out when something new is introduced—it's almost like a virus where the antibodies (the current organizational culture) start attacking it. There needs to be a core group of high performers that embrace and spread the targeted organizational culture across the organization.

High performers can't stand waste—wasted time in meetings, wasted use of resources, and wasted opportunities. Is the strategic portfolio management or program management office reporting to the executive leadership team level, or is it buried somewhere within the organization under a functional organization? 

Growing organizations embrace change as a constant and adopt a growth mindset. 

A growth mindset means that the organization is continually learning and sees change as an opportunity to learn new skills and gain new experiences. Rather than sit back and accept the status quo, we seek out how to design and build the change rather than be just the recipient of the change. Thoughts and mindset ultimately translate into behavior. Motivation and attitude are skills that are just as important as the technical portfolio or program management skills and can be developed over time. 

How are you developing your growth mindset?

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: September 22, 2019 12:12 AM | Permalink

Comments (18)

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Interesting article, but people also leave managers not only culture, nevertheless I agree you you that the culture is also a important factor.

Good to read. There is a tendency to say that people leave managers without understanding that managers are there because they are part of organizational culture. Just to comment there is a piece that is mostly forgotten in the definition of culture: behavours, belief, way of working is generated by people understanding about organizational process, methods and policies. At the end, is a big mistake to talk about culture without understanding that culture is one more among seven variables to take into account inside one of the enterprise architecture layers: the business layer. You put it clear when you list the reasons. I agree mainly with the last one. The others can be considered as a component of one of the seven variables (I am writen about seven variables because I use Tom Peter´s Seven S but other models are valuables indeed).

Alexandre Costa, HBR studies show that people leave good and bad managers at equal rates. Since programs/project are instituting large scale change, it's important to establish the culture that is expected as part of the transformation.

Sergio, good point about the 7S McKinsey model (Strategy, Structure, Systems, Staff, Style, Shared Values, Skills) when assessing strategic execution, which may include large scale programs implementing strategy or transformation. I see Culture as an overarching concept that should drive the 7S, and not necessarily a single component within it - it directly shapes Staff, Style, Shared Values, Skills, and it affects Strategy, Structure, Systems. I would say that first, define the desired Culture of the organization, and then you can use a 7S type of model to shape the specifics of the 7S to attain the Culture. As the Famous Peter Drucker quote goes, "Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast."

I aggre with you in part Jen, but there are studies for all tastes, I also can point some studies, Culture is the part where we are in convergence and I think is a main factor, sometimes the announced culture in practical is not the reality, this is also a a factor that make a lot of person to leave they job. As Sergio said there are several variables that influence and the last one is one of the biggest importance. By my experience no matter the culture of company middle management can be factor that blocks or unblocks this problems. Just another point for a international company the culture should be agnostic, centered in universal principles otherwise it will fail.
According a 2018 study by Mercer, a whopping third of all employees plan on quitting their job in the next 12 months. Why is happening this turnover, according the same study
1 - almost half (43%) said they are looking for a new job, and corporate culture was the main reason.( Since
2 - 82% of employees said theyd be more loyal, and less likely if they had more flexible jobs. ( Source Flexjobs)
3 - 92% of employees said that would be more likely to stay with their job, if their bosses would show more empathy.( Source business lover )
4 - Engaged employees are 59% less likely to seek out a new job or career in the next 12 months. (Source: Gallup )
5- 37% of employees would quit and take a new job that allowed them to work remotely part of the time.(Source: Gallup)
1 - Company culture is key.
To retain more and better employees, companies need to take their culture seriously. The environment, rules, and employee peers are taken into great consideration when quitting a job or starting a new one.
2 - Work-life balance is the future.
Work-life balance has never been more important. Employees dont want to live at work, and be consumed by their job. They want to be trusted to work from home, coffee shop, or any where they desire.
3 - Employee engagement is super important.
Employees want to love their job and their company. They want to know that what they do is valued, and matters.

Interesting reflection on one of the key factors causing turnover, and the 3 derivations.
And I agree with your statement "High performers can't stand waste"

Very interesting article., thanks for sharing

Hello Jen: I am supporting software implementations in 18 hospitals. It is very interesting to see the differences in their cultures. Great article.

It was worth reading this article. Its seems so real as i have witnessed these problems alot.

Yesterday I was seeing a interview of a CEO. His answer for what top three things occupy his day in office - People, strategy and culture. I was surprised that conventionally innovation, profitability, sustainability, was missing. He continued further saying " people are dynamic, products have a certain lifecycle, but culture - its here to stay and mobilise the first two priorities.
In that case, why people was first and culture last. His answer - its people who run the team.
What a timely coincidence to come across this article!

I agree with Alexander Costa about the fact that People often leave Mangers, not organizational culture. Employees are in near contact to his manager, and is he who transmits the culture to his staff. A bad manager can cause People insatisfaction.

Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

Thanks All for sharing your thoughts. There are many complex factors as to why people leave projects, jobs, or companies. As has been pointed out, managers are part of the Culture. If you ever hear that someone is not a good 'fit' - that's the culture.

Good read. Thanks Jen for sharing great perspective.

Jen, I appreciate your viewpoint. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

In my opinion, executive managers may struggle to realize the impact they have on the company culture. They will likely create a culture at the top that meets their desires for a workplace, but how are they ensuring that is cascaded down?

Have you read The Nine Lies About Work? It proposes that people don’t stay or leave a “corporate culture”, they will stay or leave their team culture. Many different team cultures will exist in a large organization. Some may identify and feel engaged because of their leader, while others in the same organization feel a lack of empowerment and trust due to their leader.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Interesting article!
Many times people do try to study/understand and get prepared for the culture of the organization before they join! If there is too much of gap in their expectation, they leave.

Dear Jen
Interesting reflection
Thanks for sharing

"Culture eats strategy for breakfast" - Peter Drucker

The habits, mindsets, and biases of a deep-rooted corporate culture can pose all sorts of obstacles to even the most dynamic and compelling business strategy.

The whole process of transformation must begin with a change in organizational culture.

For people to accept and follow change they must have a growth mindset

Sometimes it is necessary to work on changing from fixed mindset to growth mindset

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