People Join Companies But Leave Teams

Those who follow my blog already know that I’m somewhat skeptical about the focus on fancy perks and over-designed facilities as a shortcut to making your company attractive. In the best case, they may create a bit of buzz on the social networks, so some potential employees notice you and show up on interviews, but they do nothing when it comes to retention of the employees you’ve already got on board.

The same goes for grandiose visions of changing the world. It sounds nice on national TV or in marketing materials that your company wants to put humans on Jupiter by 2050, but it means very little to the accountants, software developers, customer support representatives, or janitors who go through their daily work right now. The company brand is important in attracting new talent, but the moment people join, other things start to matter much more.

Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall spent years researching the topic of leadership and management practices within large multinational companies and summarized their findings in the book Nine Lies About Work. They concluded that most of the management practices around career development, performance management, leadership, and motivation don’t work and are used mostly to simplify the management of complex organizations without much thought given to the impact on the actual human beings working in these organizations. And it all starts with why people work for a company.

When someone asks you how it feels to work for the company, you won’t talk about the Jupiter 2050 vision. You will talk about the endless meetings, a boss who yells at you, coworkers who don’t care and often don’t show up. You will talk about not being clear about what is expected from you on a daily basis, the last-minute changes in direction, fights between teams, and politicking. These are the things that truly matter to you as they directly impact how you feel every single day.

First-line managers can’t influence the big corporate vision, but they can definitely influence the way their team operates and feels every single day. They can create an environment where people flourish and want to stay. That is why you often see significant differences in retention numbers across different groups in the company. It is the first-line managers who often make all the difference. Buckingham and Goodall came to the same conclusion. The employee experience varies more within the company than between different companies.

It is not the brand, the facility, the perks, or the vision that causes people to perform and be satisfied with the work they do for a company. It is the human touch, the feeling they are valued, that they are part of a tribe that cares about them, surrounded by people they can care about. It is their relationship with their manager and their team. It is the small daily interactions that they have with others in the company that really matters. The team-level rituals and practices and your relationship with your closest coworkers matter much more than any company-wide events and processes. People may care a bit about which company they are joining, but they don’t care at all about which company they work for.

If you are a knowledge worker, you will sooner or later hear this piece of wisdom: People don’t leave companies; they leave managers. I would subscribe to that though I would expand it. People don’t leave companies; they leave teams and managers. You may join the best company in the world, but if you don’t like the team you work with, don’t build an emotional connection, you won’t stay for long.

You can see this with people who, after joining the company, stay for about a year, and then they move on. If they stay just for a couple of months, it is understandable as they see there is no fit with the company, they struggle with the job, or the job is different from what they expected. If someone leaves after a year, it is not only about the job. It is about the team.

Of course, it is also about work that you are being asked to do, but even that has a strong correlation to the team and the manager. As Facebook found out, people are leaving primarily because of work. When their strengths are underused and they aren’t growing in their careers, they go somewhere else. Obviously, managers have an outsized role in this. You can try to fit the people you hired into preordained boxes of rigid roles, or you can be flexible and design the roles around people’s strengths and passions. It is up to the manager whether people understand what they are supposed to do and why, whether they are in positions that play to their strengths, understand the meaning their work has for others, grow their careers, and develop as individuals. It doesn’t matter how the rest of the company operates. It is all in your power.

It is the teams, not individuals, that are the building blocks of any company. Yet, few companies even think about teams at all. The planning spreadsheets don’t deal with teams. They deal with individuals and possibly with business units or departments. Very few companies measure the performance of teams. Focus on creating a real team spirit and ensure the team shares the spoils of war.

Even company culture doesn’t apply to everyone equally. Teams have subcultures that can be significantly different from each other. That is why you are often confused when a person from another department or another location complains about the company and describes things that are very far from your own experience.

It also brings a warning. When you are planning to join a company and are reading online diatribes of former employees trashing the company, you should consider that they may have worked on a different team or in a different location, and your own experience can be radically different. Don’t get discouraged by anonymous complainers. The best you can do is try to get some real feedback from the team you will be joining. Their comments will be much closer to the experience you are going to have.

To sum it up

While uniform culture leads us towards conformity, the day-to-day work within a small team allows us to be unique. Within the team, people tend to play to their strengths and complement each other. We may have the same overarching goal, but we each contribute in our unique way.

The emotional connection we build with our colleagues and teammates keeps us often in the company. We are comfortable with the people around us. We like spending time with them. If we then see that they appreciate us for who we are, value what we do, and are willing to go out of their way to help us, we will be satisfied with the job. Having a team you truly belong to is the best retention strategy. No amount of perks and company slogans can replace that.

What are your thoughts on the topic? Do you believe that the team is a key to retaining employees? What are the things that keep you at the company? Do you stay with a great team even if the perks and benefits suck? Will you leave a bad team even if the compensation is better than you can get elsewhere?

Photo: tomas_workman0 /

For more read my blog about management, leadership, communication, coaching, introversion, software development and career TheGeekyLeader or follow me on Twitter: @GeekyLeader

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Quiet Success by Tomas Kucera

Categories: Leadership

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2 replies


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