I was reminiscing with a close friend last week about the company where we worked for several years gaining our first long-term real world corporate experience. We talked about my propensity to speak out against injustices in the organization and how its managers would respond to troublemakers (like me) who dared to express an opinion or challenge the establishment. In one instance, I was having a conversation with a manager about pay fairness and he flung this doozy at me: “If you don’t like it here, then leave!” I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, that’s cute. You should post that outside your office instead of the empty feel-good BS about being there for your employees.”
If I had to make an educated guess, I would say managers at this company all received the same combat training on how to deal with and squash dissent among the rank and file. Throughout my career, I’ve heard this line and its variations – “Nobody’s holding you hostage”/”Nobody’s a prisoner here” – from different managers and from co-workers who were told the same by their bosses. This leadership approach is old-school, ineffective, and totally inappropriate in the current knowledge economy. Given the fact that knowledge workers are more informed, more mobile, and more independent than their Industrial Revolution forebears, today’s leaders would do well to leave the bygone “deal with it or quit” management style in that era where it belongs.
Digging in your heels and refusing to have an open discussion with your employees about an issue that concerns them is a bad leadership torpedo that will sink engagement and morale without fail. It’s a pretty arrogant way for managers to turn the situation around on employees by making their choice to stay the problem, rather than considering that the organization has an unattractive employee value proposition or that they just plain suck as leaders.
Managers who say “If you don’t like it here, then leave” are showing signs of a malignant leadership mindset I’ll refer to as the Trunchbull Complex. Remember Miss Trunchbull? She was the vile and abusive headmistress from Matilda who bragged to the titular young heroine during class that “I’m big and you’re small, and I’m right and you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” You are basically saying the same thing to your employees when you tell them to deal with whatever it is they’re bringing to your attention, because, as the boss, you’re right and they can’t do anything about it.
Actually, there’s plenty they can do about it.
They can leave, as suggested, and go on to work for one of your competitors. They can anonymously trash your company on Glassdoor. Or, if your behavior was egregious enough and they left sufficiently disgruntled, the can hire an attorney to come up with all sorts of creative ways to sue you (constructive discharge is a thing, you know).
They can stay and find ways to undermine you. Recent studies have shown that employees who engage in passive aggressive retaliation against their abusive bosses experience lower stress levels as a side benefit of “sticking it to the man”. This relates to the concept of actively disengaged employees – the roughly 20 or so percent of workers who try to sabotage their organizations in some way or another. While I agree that the definition is technically correct, what I want to convey is that these employees aren’t engaged in destructive behaviors just for the fun of it. Far more often than not, bad leadership is to blame and employees are just trying to restore some semblance of equity.
Leaders, if you are ever tempted to use the “If you don’t like it here, then leave” line, consider the following and think about whether collaborating with your employees to arrive at a solution is a better approach:
Would you print “If you don’t like it here, then leave” on the ‘Careers’ section of your company website? What about on your company’s marketing collateral for a job fair? Would you instruct recruiters to recite this message to job candidates during a search?
If you have at least a basic understanding of how to attract talent, you would say “Of course not!” Alright, then why would you say it to your current employees? Preserving your brand as an employer of choice means creating the best possible employee experience. If you tell your employees that they need to either shut up or take a hike, you are undermining that effort and positioning your organization for failure. Adopt a mindset of curiosity instead of superiority. You will never know what your employees can teach you about how to be a better leader unless you ask them.
What do you think? Have you ever been told “If you don’t like it here, then leave”? Have you ever used this line on an employee and (hopefully) regretted it?