Understanding why people really quit

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 20, 2023
Filed in Communication, Employee Engagement, Strategy

Lately, I’ve been teaching people data storytelling. One of the common issues people want to tackle with data stories is the rise in resignations. Interestingly, they often discover and hone in on the connection between lower-than-average industry wages and quitting.

On the surface, this appears to be the solution. We should just increase salaries, right? Hmmm, let’s not hastily jump to a conclusion. We require more insight to truly understand why individuals are leaving their jobs.

In 2022, The Work Institute reported 11 reasons why people resign.

Almost one-quarter leave because of better opportunities for growth, promotion or further study.

About 10 per cent left because of the characteristics of the job, such as stress, access to resources and how much autonomy they have.

And another 10 per cent or so pack their bags because of professional behaviour, lack of support or poor communication.

And regarding salary. Only one in ten people said they were leaving because their salary was too low.

But these are just averages. So why are people leaving your company? Your business unit?

This is where you need to hear the stories from both high- and low-turnover groups in your business.

The stories illustrate employees’ lived experiences. Each story will have detail and emotion. They are irrefutable and inspire action.

Your data helps you spot any issues. Employee engagement results are an excellent place to start; to get you in the ballpark. For instance, low engagement (and quitting) may be caused by leaders who are unable to communicate purpose and direction.

But what does this poor communication look like? Until you have that answer, it’s hard to develop effective change initiatives specific to your business.

This is where we collect anecdotes. We use a technique I learned back in the ’90s at IBM called Anecdote Circles.

Here’s an example of a story of a leader communicating the company story poorly.

A mid-level manager assembled his team to share the company strategy. He just received the PowerPoint deck. He projects it on the screen and says, “The higher-ups have told me to share this with you” Clicks to the first slide. “This is our strategy.” Next slide. Reads out the slide. “Not sure what they meant by that.” He continues like this for 30 minutes. The audience tunes out. Not only do they not understand the strategy, but they probably are left with a negative feeling about it.

Now the good scientists among you might think, “Well, that’s just one anecdote. You can’t base anything on that.” And you would be right. But when we collect 100s of stories, we start to see patterns of behaviour, and it’s these patterns you address.

The negative stories create concern and a desire for change. Positive stories, on the other hand, show you how it can be done.

Contrast the above effort with how this sales leader conveys the vital attitude for any team of never becoming complacent.

I heard this story while working with a large sales group in the US. The sales leader kicked the day off by asking, “Who has won the most medals in the history of the Olympic Games?”

Someone at the back of the room calls out, “Michael Phelps!”

Yes, Michael Phelps. He’s won 23 gold medals and 28 medals overall.

The leader continues, “I remember the 2008 Beijing Olympics …” and he recounts watching the men’s 400m Individual Medley Final on telly.

He watched Michael Phelps glide through the water, win the event with two seconds to spare, and beat both his personal record and the world record. His teammate, Ryan Lochte, came third.

Phelps and Lochte swam in the same event at the next Olympics, the 2012 London Olympic Games. The leader again watches the event on TV.

This time, Phelps only just qualifies for the final. He’s allocated a lane towards the edge of the pool. Lochte performed better and was given a lane in the middle.

As soon as the race started, the leader could tell Phelps wasn’t in it. Lochte, meanwhile, was swimming beautifully.

Lochte wins, and Phelps finishes fourth.

Shocked Phelps had lost the event, sports reporters rushed to ask the swimmers, “What happened?”

Phelps had become complacent. He hadn’t been putting as much into his training as he had in the past.

Lochte, by contrast, had been putting everything into his training. He had even modified his kick for his butterfly and breaststroke, calling it his ‘dolphin kick’.

Finishing the story, the sales leader says, “We have to be careful. We’ve been number one for so long; in some ways, we are just like Phelps. We’ve won 23 gold medals; we’re out in front.

It would be so easy for us to take our foot off the gas and end up like Phelps.

We need our own dolphin kick. Our competitors are just like Lochte.”

The sales team responded so well to the story that I could hear them asking in the breakout sessions, “Yeah! What’s our dolphin kick?”

Positive examples give hints about what could be done to improve.

The process of anecdote-driven insight doesn’t stop at discovering stories. The next step is to gather your leaders and immerse them in the stories so they can see the patterns of behaviours themselves. This way, they own the conclusions of what’s happening and what are the patterns that must be fixed or reinforced.

Lastly, you need to move to design interventions as experiments. That way, you can quickly see which ones have promise and encourage them. You quickly kill off unsuccessful interventions. This is the best way to make progress when things are complex and messy. And what isn’t these days?

Let me know if you have any questions.


Work Institute. “2022 Retention Report: How Employers Caused the Great Recession.” 2022. https://info.workinstitute.com/hubfs/2022%20Retention%20Report/2022%20Retention%20Report%20-%20Work%20Institute.pdf. p. 13.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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