Management Happy people don’t leave jobs they love

Shields Down

Resignations happen in a moment, and it’s not when you declare, “I’m resigning.” The moment happened a long time ago when you received a random email from a good friend who asked, “I know you’re really happy with your current gig because you’ve been raving about it for a year, but would you like to come visit Our Company? No commitment. Just coffee.”

Now, everyone involved in this conversation transaction is aware of what is going down. While there is certainly no commitment, there is a definitely an agenda. The reason they want you to visit The Company is because, of course, they want you there in the building because seeing a potential future is far more compelling than describing it.

Still, seeing it isn’t the moment of resignation. The moment happened the instant you decided, “What the hell? I haven’t seen Don in months and it’d be good to see him.”

Your shields are officially down.

A Potential Future

Your shields drop the moment you let a glimpse of a potential different future into your mind. It seems like a unconsidered off-the-cuff thought sans consequence, but the thought opens you to possibilities that did not exist the moment before the thought existed.

What is incredibly slippery about this moment is the complex, nuanced, and instant mental math performed that precedes the shields-down situation. When you are indirectly asked to lower your shields, you immediately parse, place a value, and aggregate your opinions on the following:

  • Am I happy with my job?
  • Do I like my manager? My team?
  • Is this project I’m working on fulfilling?
  • Am I learning?
  • Am I respected?
  • Am I growing?
  • Do I feel fairly compensated?
  • Is this company/team going anywhere?
  • Do I believe in the vision?
  • Do I trust the leaders?

Now, each human has a different prioritized subset of this list that they rank and value differently. Growth is paramount for some, truth for others. Whatever unique blend is important, you use that blend and ask yourself one final question as you consider lowering your shields. What has happened recently or in the past that either supports or detracts from what I value?

The answer to that question determines whether your shields stay up or go down.

Humans Never Forget

As a leader of humans, I’ve watched sadly as valued co-workers have resigned. Each time I work to understand two things:

  1. Why are they leaving?
  2. When did their shields go down?

In most cases, the answers to Question #1 are rehearsed and clear. It’s the question they’ve been considering and asking themselves, so their answers are smooth.

  • I’m looking for a smaller company where I can have more impact.
  • I’ve been here for three years and I’m looking for a change of scenery. It happens.
  • I want to work somewhere more established where I can dig my teeth into one hard problem.

These answers are fine, but they aren’t the complete reason why they are leaving. It’s the politically correct answer that is designed to easily answer the most obvious question. The real question, the real insight, comes from the answer to Question #2: When did their shields go down?

Their shields drop when, in the moment they are presented with the offer of potential future opportunity, they quickly evaluate their rubric and make an instant call: Is this job meeting my bar?

To find and understand this shields-down moment, I ask, “When did you start looking?” Often the answers are a vague, “It kind’a just happened. I wasn’t really looking. I’m really happy here.”


If I’m sitting here talking with you it means two things: I don’t want you to leave and, to the best of my knowledge, you didn’t want to leave either but here you are leaving. It didn’t just happen. You chose. Maybe you weren’t looking, but once your shields dropped, you started looking. Happy people don’t leave jobs they love.

The reason this reads cranky is because I, the leader of the humans, screwed up. Something in the construction of the team or the company nudged you at a critical moment. When that mail arrived gently asking you about coffee, you didn’t answer the way you answered the prior five similar mails with a brief, “Really happy here. Let’s get a drink some time!” You think you thought Hmmm… what the hell. It can’t hurt. What you actually thought or realized was:

  • You know, I have no idea when I’m going to be a tech lead here.
  • Getting yelled at two days ago still stings.
  • I don’t believe a single thing senior leadership says.

Often you’ve forgotten this original thought in your subsequent intense job deliberations, but when I ask, when I dig, I usually find a basic values violation that dug in, stuck, and festered. Sometimes it’s a major values violation from months ago. Sometimes it’s a small violation that occurred at the worst possible time. In either case, your expectations of your company and your job were not met and when faced with opportunity elsewhere, you engaged.

It’s Not Just Boredom

I covered a major contributor to shield drops in Bored People Quit. Boredom in its many forms is a major contributor to resignations, but the truth is the list of contributing factors to shield weakening is immense. When you combine this with the near constant increasing demand for talented humans, you’ve got a complex leadership situation.

The reason I’m cranky is I’m doing the math. I’m placing a cost on the departure of a wanted human leaving and comparing that cost with whatever usually minor situation existed in the past that led to a shields-down situation. The departure cost is always exponentially higher.

My advice is similarly frustrating. Strategies to prevent shields dropping are as numerous as the reasons shields drop in the first place. I’ve discovered shield drops after the fact with close co-workers whom I met with for a 1:1 every single week where I felt we were covering topics of substance; where I felt I understood what they valued and how they wanted to grow.

I’ve been here for three years and I’m looking for a change of scenery. It happens. Two months ago, someone told them their project was likely to be canceled. It wasn’t.

You know, I have no idea when I’m going to be a tech lead here. At the end of last month, she heard via the grapevine that she wasn’t going to be promoted. When she got the promotion she deserved, it was too late.

I don’t believe a single thing senior leadership says. At the last All Hands, I blew off a question with a terse answer because I didn’t want to dignify gossip. I forgot there is signal even in gossip.

Every moment as a leader is an opportunity to either strengthen or weaken shields. Every single moment.

Happy New Year.

Editor, March 2024: Shirts are now available to proudly display your favorite shield

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125 Responses

  1. Steven Harris 9 years ago

    Thank you for this insightful essay. It exposes the truth about these departures, which usually gets buried—unexamined—in the optimistic transition to the new gig.

    A few nits to correct:


    Perhaps I don’t know this meaning for “slipper”.


    s/it’s a small that/it’s a small violation that/

    s/contribution factors/contributing factors/

    s/combine this the/combine this with the/

    s/who I met with/with whom I met/

    s/substance; where/substance, where/

  2. rands 9 years ago

    Fixed. Thanks @stevenharris

  3. In the examples at the bottom of your post, I’m really struck by how the two “I have no idea when I’m going to be a tech lead here” are prime examples of how people got politically manipulated into leaving the organisation through being fed (intentionally?) bad information.

    Which – how do you combat that? Is it possible to shield your people from being manipulated in this way at all?

  4. My shields down moment happened when the State of Kansas decided that it was going to furlough employees. Or perhaps that’s what flipped the switch, because if I’m honest here, my manager was not a leader of humans, not even close. It’s a shame really, because he was a great guy, I liked him, but…he just didn’t respect or value the talent that worked for him. I never heard him directly or indirectly go to bat for us on anything. In a team, the manager needs to manage, lead, let the talent do what it does and trust that everyone is here because they wanted to be here, and they wanted to do the job.

  5. Great post! One further nit to pick: last sentence s/ever/every/.

  6. Paul H 9 years ago

    Nitpick: penultimate sentence, at least as I type this: Ever/Every.

    Rands, what about the situation where someone sniffs at the new opportunity but doesn’t end up leaving (of their own choice, rather than the “carrot dangler” reconsidering)? I understand that the unhappy person is that much more likely to take up the offer, but there could be reasons why it’s useful to make the connection without making the jump. For example, it often isn’t a waste of anyone’s time to build networks and plan for the future.

    If I were coaching someone, I’d tell them to at least briefly entertain every opportunity presented to them. Not all will be worth further reflection (ten minutes’ effort with their search engine of choice), and many won’t have that “right place, right time” magic that makes them stand out, but living life with blinkers on isn’t in anyone’s interest, at any level of the workforce.

  7. I absolutely agree with your thesis, and if people do want to leave their jobs don’t quit, get laid off instead. If you quit you can’t collect unemployment benefits, you can’t collect deferred compensation in the form of stock or cash, and you won’t get cobra health insurance either. Finally, you won’t get the warn act compensation that is mandatory at the very least by large corporations to give out to laid-off employees. Compensation ranges from one month to three months.


  8. Stephanie B 9 years ago

    You at least care. You have real 1:1s with your people with the express intent of learning what’s happening.

    I set up meetings with my direct each week or two because he won’t. I create the agenda and manage him. I have a 30 minute 1:1 with my second level once a year, and you can certainly guess how much communication occurs. I was just ranked as a top analyst in our department of 50 or so people where they’ve stated I’m flexible, adaptable, productive, and reliable.

    I left a long time ago.

    Retirement is on the horizon. When that day arrives I’ll be active in some other area, with the intent to never return. I like my tech work, and I’m good at it. I have passions and drive elsewhere, however, and I’m building that new area now so that “retirement” becomes “career shift”.

    Why not leave now? Golden handcuffs and age. I will say I am fairly compensated. While money isn’t everything, it isn’t nothing either. Also, no one wants old people. Yes, that’s a generalization, but the economics of an active job search would require considerable investment; I’d rather use that time developing my new area.

    At my current company, I’m not a human resource. I’m just a body, a cog. They want nothing more than that. Fine. I give them the best I can while I’m there. It’s become a day job to finance my new venture.

  9. michael 9 years ago

    the best time to look for a job, is when you already have one.

  10. T. Slush 9 years ago

    Very nice article.
    A self-aware boss is the top thing on any employee’s wish list, and this is a lovely new year’s message for leaders…but maybe a better goal than 100% retention is 100% happy alumni – who become not just competitors, but clients, recruiters, advertisers, and suppliers over time.

    IMO, Their private dreams should be encouraged – and the company expose pathways of advancement and growth not just within their walls but within their industry. Make it be known through the industry as the “place people go if they really want to be someone in XX field”.

    All of the same management behaviors would be promoted, but the parting words would be made more obviously less final – an invitation for future contact. Why do people think turnover is so bad? It’s great for the employee – (for example “LinkedIn” doesn’t even mark your resume as complete until you’ve had at least 3 jobs) – and it injects the diversity of other employers’ ideas and practices into the system, which is always good.

  11. Hi Rands, I really like your blog. I think it touches on a lot of struggles in the startup universe. That’s why I read it.

    But when I read the above something bothers me. And I’m trying to put a finger on what it is.

    Well there’s a thread of loyalty in there, and devotion & so forth. It reminds me of Fred Wilson’s post “loyalists vs mercenaries”. But I guess that’s the trouble I’m having. If we’re looking around does that make us less loyal?

    In startup land we talk about disruptors vs incumbents. In real estate we talk about market forces setting the price of rents. In each we believe in Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

    I believe strongly the labor market is vibrant & healthy in the states *because* of this free labor market. And so healthy actors in that market should *ALWAYS* be looking. It’s about educating yourself to what opportunities are out there, and what your value is in the market.

    If you sit still because you love what you do, if you sit still because you’re building fun things & making a difference, you may also be distorting the labor market.

    Can we believe in the good of disruptive innovation, without believing in disrupting our own individual jobs?

    I believe happy people *do* leave jobs they love. Shields down I say & lets embrace disruption. Let’s call it agile career building.

    It may be akin to Reid Hoffman’s concept “The Startup of You”.

  12. Press Today » The non-BS reason your star employee just quit linked to this.
  13. >Your shields drop the moment you let a glimpse of a potential different future into your mind. It seems like a unconsidered off-the-cuff thought sans consequence, but the thought opens you to possibilities that did not exist the moment before the thought existed.

    And that’s A GOOD THING! Please keep thinking, please keep considering possibilities. Don’t ever lock yourself into a cage because of some misguided person’s internet blog.
    This post is really scarry.

  14. Peter John 9 years ago

    My shield dropped when people on my project started having meetings without inviting me. Maybe it was my fault but it doesn’t really matter since the result was going to be the same.

  15. The non-BS reason your star employee just quit | RT Insurance News linked to this.
  16. The non-BS reason your star employee just quit | Bicara Niaga linked to this.
  17. The non-BS reason your star employee just quit » GeoFront Capital Group linked to this.
  18. The non-BS reason your star employee just quit | Digital Wealth linked to this.
  19. > Bullshit.
    > …when I ask, when I dig, I usually find a basic values violation that dug in, stuck, and festered. Sometimes it’s a major values violation from months ago. Sometimes it’s a small violation that occurred at the worst possible time. In either case, your expectations of your company and your job were not met and when faced with opportunity elsewhere, you engaged.

    Michael, are you familiar with what social scientists refer to as “recall bias?” As humans we have this compulsion to find clear causal connections between events that are simply correlated, and it acts as a filter on our recollections.

    I would place confidently wager that if you had the same seious conversations with employees who get these same emails but don’t leave, and pushed hard enough, they would be able to describe small disappointments and values violations too. Nothing in life is perfect; that’s just the baseline.

    So when you sit down with someone leaving, of course the two of you will eventually find a prior event that you can scapegoat, especially when you have an employee wanting to not seem capricious and a manager convinced there’s some motivating factor and a lesson to be drawn.

    Sometimes bullshit isn’t.

  20. That Neo from the Matrix 9 years ago

    I know the exact moment my shield went down and I completely lost trust in my manager. I’ve been taking “one for the team” for the last couple of years. A new initiative was started and a lot of people were hired. I had mentioned I am very much interested in moving to the new project. That’s when my manager started using it as a carrot. The first time I complained, he insinuated that I’m not acting as part of the team. No difference in task allocations after that. Only assurances. The second time I hinted I might quit, the response was no one is irreplacable – which I believe is true. Everyone around me was getting amazing projects to work on whereas me and a couple of engineers have been taking one for the team for more than a year now. The project or the interesting work has been almost completed and if I was to pick it up now, it would be fixing bugs in the code others have written all over again. I just resigned and they tried very hard to get me to stay with all kinds of promises. Once bitten, twice shy. But I learned a lot from my manager about how not to lead a team.

  21. I reproduced “the Peter principle revisited” in high detail and one of the things I found is that an annual review is crap. It is like getting an electric bill once a year. HR hand-waves and says “your manager should…” but they don’t want to hear “human physics” or “Nyquist”. It is really sad.

    HR does these “are you happy” or “state of the business” surveys once a year, and sometimes they don’t hack the answers such that they always “win”, and they ask questions like “the most frustrating message I heard from management this year was …”. They need to do that once a quarter. They need to not book-cook the test. They need to actually anonymize the answers because nobody trusts the company store to give a fair price.

  22. ArtAAArt Blackwell 9 years ago

    You’ve been watching too much Star Trek.

    I had a game changer scenario like this at one time in my career. Silicon Valley was growing too fast and it was rush, rush, rush. I knew I could not afford a house in Silicon Valley. Even though I was never compensated enough, I still liked working with my hands and never wanted a management job, which was the reward for doing your job well ( and I had several management jobs waiting, if I wanted to have one ).
    Then, out of the blue, a perfect job was offered that appeared that would solve all my misgivings. The job was in the upper mid West, would get a house and start a family and would use all my learned knowledge to the max.
    A VP was flown out from the East Coast to persuade me to stay. He quietly said ” Their is nothing I can say that will change your mind about leaving, is there? ”

    So PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT instead of POLITICAL ENVIRONMENT can have a big say in what is really important in a young man’s life. The ” next higher level ” is often not about an employment issue at all.

  23. Mike Garcia 9 years ago

    I’m in this boat right now! I’m happy at work but for some reason I applied elsewhere?

  24. Erika 9 years ago

    Great essay. I agree.

  25. Michael Normand 9 years ago

    You are correct. I had taught for forty years and had retired. I wanted to get a motorcycle and my wife said ok, but you need to get a part time job and more life insurance. I applied to a large department store. I was hired and asked to go to some formal training. Here is where the “shields-down” started. The training was given by a Presenter…not a lecturer or better a teacher. There were misspelled and diagrams that didn’t match to information. A blatant error was the non-capitalization of Bernice Bishop Museum. I mentioned this to the presenter and she said ok she would see if it could get fixed.? It didn’t because it came from the corporate offices in New York. Upon starting work I was assigned with other coworkers to give out bonus rewards to customers that spent x amount of money. The directions that were written were hard for the coworkers to understand. I wrote some helpful directions and circled the keywords to the appropriate symbols and illustrations. The coworkers and others said it made it easier for them to understand the operation. I went to the #2 person in charge and showed him the possible new revisions. He told me to talk to “A” it’s her job. I went to “A” with the typed format and explained it to her. I looked up and saw a deer in the headlights. I stared to back track, she explained there was nothing she could do it came from “Corporation” she couldn’t do anything. I apologized and stepped out of the room. She was embarrassed I felt bad. Next because when given an assignment I performed well I kept getting more and more. This is a major problem in most companies. They continue to pile on extra work to those capable and willing with saying or paying thank you. Sooner or later this will wear on a worker. This company hires mostly part-time workers and this causes rumors of reduction of force, pay inequities and lack of teamwork. Then there was the evaluation process. Having been in situation where the Principle is the only one to evaluate you if your liked great if not oops. This in most Educational situation has been replaced by a team of professionals that come and evaluate you throughout the year. I was handed a 60 day evaluation and told to fill it out myself. 0-3 zero being needs work three excellent. This manager and other managers did the same didn’t watch my work or didn’t realize that they had been giving me extra work that they didn’t need to worry about? To digress when I first started work the department store hadn’t opened and then opened a few days before it was ready due to the upcoming holiday season. The turning point was I had turned in some notes about various potential area of safety or productivity. The #2 person said as I walked away one time “Oh, more notes”. I stopped writing notes. A month later a mannequin fell off a shelf and hit a customer, the notes contained this information. I gave my two week notice and when asked just said, “I’ve got enough money for my motorcycle and as you know I’m retired. Thank you for hiring me and I hope you and the company prosper here.” Did I mention I played on the Olympic team, coached University athletics, was a Department Chair, Division Chair, District Mentor and Director of Athletics? I also have a Masters in Education. But I was just a part-time Recovery menial laborer. My advise for managers is know the capabilities and prior knowledge of your employees. Listen and if their ideas can’t be implemented explain the reasons, or if they can be then help them, yourself and the corporation improve.

  26. Matt Garcia 9 years ago

    I’ve been at my job 8 yrs, I’m happy but for some reason I applied elsewhere! Maybe I’d like to know if I’m valuable somewhere else or change of scenery? This article took the words right out of my mouth.

  27. Brian BBbbBrian Kemp 9 years ago

    An interesting read. From personal experience with a great company the issue may not be as simple as some think.
    When senior management go to great lengths to share the plans and aspirations of the company in considerable detail, don’t have middle management foul it up by lying.
    When you claim to be an equal opportunity employer try to avoid pre picking a candidate and grooming them for the position. Firstly your integrity fails, it is obvious. Secondly your credibility and all pretense just went out the door. Unless you are prepared to bypass the applicant process and just offer the position with out asking for applicants. But that undermines the Equal Opportunity part.
    Offering a position and pulling it is not conducive to getting the employee you are seeking. Particularly when it is reoffered with a greater ask and lower offer. Repeating that with an even lower offer makes you look ridiculous.
    And the classic “Its an all girl group and we would like to keep it that way”! In todays world?
    There are so many failings in middle management in so many companies.
    I still work for the company, I have not found an alternative position that would pay as well. But although I’m still there the company lost something. My enthusiasm and can do attitude.
    Remember there may not be a departure, but there will always be a cost.

  28. Hmmm… sounds a little bitter.

    I don’t think that an employee makes a decision to leave until they accept an offer. In the few times during my current job where I looked enough that it ended up with site visits, I didn’t like what I saw and/or was not offered enough to leave. At worst, from my boss’s point of view, I was gathering information and validating my current position. How do I know what I’m worth until I look somewhere else?

    OTOH, I’m not a superstar, so perhaps I wasn’t courted hard enough. My job these days seems to be cleaning up code after the cowboys leave for the next sexy project, so that we have maintainable applications that run. I get my work done on time and my releases cause no drama.

  29. Elizabeth 9 years ago

    You just wrote an article that explains why I quit every job I did. In the end it doesn’t usually come down to money or the workload – it’s usually about disrespect (either perceived or real – it doesn’t matter).

    Some ancient cultures have a concept called “giving face” which means showing in public that you respect a person and you honor them. My boss can say “Thank you” fifty times a day in private, but if that’s not what I think others see in our relationship, my shield goes down.

  30. Steve 9 years ago

    I recently resigned from a well paying job for which I had moved 1800 miles cross country. The company paid me a lucrative sign on bonus as well as paying for my moving expenses for which I signed a two year contract. It turned out to be the job from hell. Without going into details i will try to tell you why. The lead technician (my direct supervisor) was demeaning, condescending, lazy and showed favoritism to those she liked. Sadly she was friends with the next manager up so I never went to that manager feeling that nothing would be done about it. After 3 months the other technician that was hired with me quit. Other issues were overbearing, condescending doctors who refused to alter the way they did things and upper management who continued to let them waste money, time and resources. Antiquated record keeping and reporting with lost charts that somehow became the technicians fault. Faulty orders and billing codes which were also some how the technicians fault and the list goes one. I tried TWICE talking to the lead tech and stood up for myself but I was the bad guy because I had difficulty “adapting to change”. I finally realized after 6 or 7 months that this job was making me physically and mentally sick. I gained weight from nervous eating, I had acid reflux which I had never had before, I couldn’t sleep at night and my back and shoulders hurt constantly from carrying around the stress. I walked away and had to pay back over $6k in bonus/moving expenses because I did not fulfill my contract……Best decision I ever made. While my future is sort of up in the air I am making more money and working with much nicer techs, nurses and doctors than at my previous job.

  31. Frank 9 years ago

    The article can be distilled down to its subtitle: “Happy people don’t leave jobs they love.”

    Why are they unhappy? Why don’t they love the job? In my experience, two reasons: the job itself sucks, or their immediate boss is a palpable idiot (usually both – the idiot boss is why the job sucks). The job will never get better and complaining to the boss’ boss is a waste of time, since the boss’ boss probably put your immediate boss in his position and isn’t going to admit he made a mistake. And it marks you as a malcontent. So, the only realistic way to improve your situation is to leave.

    When a good, competent employee leaves, the first place to look is his/her immediate boss. 99.9% of the time, the boss is the real reason. But nobody wants to burn bridges (and get marked not okay for rehire) so they make up BS excuses. But, really, it’s the boss, almost every time.

    Loyalty is a two-way street. When you see that all the traffic is on your side of the street, take the next exit.

  32. Werner Lesar 9 years ago

    Great discussion and comments. I propose that there are two main reasons people change jobs, weight, lifestyles, addresses, spouses, Change is the result of a pull or a push. You change to get away from something you no longer wish in your life OR to run towards something you perceive as better: better opportunity, more interesting, greener grass, etc. I’ve changed jobs /careers often in my 40 years of work: sometimes because I was no longer wanted or was fired and others for a better opportunity. Both are valid and despite leaving with tears or rage, each change had a real impact on my life, marriage and career.
    I’m not completely sold on your narrowing the reasons for leaving to shields being down. Yes we do remember and we are affected by cumulative events that lose impact with time. Recall each year that dreaded employee performance / salary review. As a manager, you inevitably recall those balls the employee dropped which caused you pain, embarrassment and perhaps even the raise you were expecting. You swear you’ll remember that at review time…until of course months have passed, no similar dropped passes occurred, and the feeling of being petty overcomes your rage at the time.
    It is also inevitable that at some point you will work for someone much less experienced and much younger unless you work for yourself or run your own organization. This can cause instant shield erosion, even if you grow to respect the new leader. The corporate world however is bound to self preservation, growth and will always make every decision in its own best interest. Fairness, generosity and truth are nowhere to be found in its constitution. It rewards those who patronize and do anything to further its goals (mostly short-termed) while asking the employees to “sacrifice” for the protection of itself. I would have to say the lack of trust is a much stronger impetus to leave than any weakness in a shield. Everyone knows full well managers not worth a dime being promoted and rewarded on your hard work. Promises not kept. “We’re going in a different direction.” “It’s beyond my control.” The corporate world is ever more politically correct in its communications which often have NO relation to the truth. There is no respect for the truth. If you ask me while I’m leaving, there is not a single manager who expects or wants to hear the truth. They “can’t handle the truth!” If I tell you of the constant BS you hand me, the lies, the p/c reasons, etc. how will you react? I find exit interviews to be totally silly. Once I’ve resigned, the reason is obvious: Either I found something I think is better (e.g. retirement) OR I can’t stand the existing situation. Run away OR move forward. That’s it.

  33. Steve 9 years ago

    I’m curious have you had a situation where one of your reports was being homest with you and told you they are thinking of leaving? I know some managers who also have the attitude that your best people should always be looking and those that aren’t, are comfortable or know they might not be able to find a job elsewhere…

  34. This is going to be a harsh comment.

    Perhaps you need to chill and let people move on with their lives. Do you really expect your employees to be with you for a lifetime? Do you really believe that people leaving your team is your fault?

    The truth is, you don’t have control over what people want. I don’t know you, but from reading this article: I can understand the frustration, however you don’t seem to take anything away from the frustration. That makes me want to avoid you, not work with you. Instead you wallow in this self-constructed notion that you have to be a “leader of humans” and even the language you use is somewhat narcissistic. You say “shields” to describe additional opportunities which your employees have? Those are usually described as doors or paths, and they symbolize a freedom of choice or an existential angst, but this is a first when such opportunities are equated with the symbolism of hostile action.

  35. Insurance guy 9 years ago

    I’m currently looking for a new position after 13 years with my company. My one and only goal is to work virtually from my home, which is standard in my industry, but not supported by my management team. I’ve had nothing but stellar reviews of my performance, and have even made the comment that they could freeze my salary for the accommodation, still with no support. It baffles me, as if I had a long time valued employee that made a statement to me like that, I would do everything I could to accommodate them and keep them, particularly when it doesn’t cost me any money. Biggest problem in business, is insecure management. People that never should’ve got the position in the first place, have no vision, or any idea what it takes to motivate people and retain talent.

  36. Mebigfatguy 9 years ago

    To be honest you don’t exist, nor do your motivations, exist, at any company. It’s a delightful read to be sure, but utter crap.

    People are replaceable is the mantra of 99.44% of companies out there. Because lets face it, management isn’t really all that good to understand or care any differently.

    Would be nice if it did. but alas. no.

  37. Happy People Don’t Leave Jobs They Love | innovativetalentsearch linked to this.
  38. Shields Down 9 years ago

    When management is too lazy to do the work to replace a very good employee so said employee can be promoted, shields down.

    When management plays the ‘carrot’ game to keep an employee, shields down.

    When upper management tolerates beastly behavior by middle management because the bottom line looks good, shields down.

    When management tolerates beastly behavior by employees, shields down.

    When management is too secretive, shields down.

  39. Joseph Chepsoi 9 years ago

    Very interesting, valuable and informative article. It describes situations many go through prior to abrupt departure that can rarely be reversed.
    Employers often assume talented staff will always be there for them particularly in job scarce environments. But human beings need love and happiness first and foremost to be fulfilled as the rest are either secondary or tertiary considerations.
    I concur and recommend this article to any manager.

  40. The non-BS reason your star employee just quit | Vus Times linked to this.
  41. Awesome, I have read a lot on leadership and have an MBA in healthcare admin. I have never heard anything like this. I like it, and I will be incorporating it into my daily interactions. Thanks for the great read.

  42. ReVeLaTeD 9 years ago

    Values plays a big part. Company direction in general is #1 for me.

    I have joined companies that pitched a given direction at the time of hire, so I knew what I was getting into, but when I ask them about their desire to do things better, they’re always like, “that’s why we’re looking for fresh eyes!”. But then I get to work and I see recalcitrant behavior at the ground level, or even management. Fear of change, sometimes, but more frequently? They just think my ideas cannot possibly work “here”, despite years of experiences.

    I was once overlooked for a position for a tool that I had significant experience with for a guy who had only 1-2 years, simply because that guy worked in that vertical market. Despite me having worked with over 6 customers of the tool in that vertical. The company (which ended up hiring me later) basically said they preferred vertical experience – despite the tool in question not requiring said experience. That should have been a red flag to keep looking, but I was willing to give them a chance to see the light.

    They never did. I left. They had four levels of management do everything, offer everything, for me to stay. Problem is, they weren’t willing to do the one thing that mattered: change their bias. They wanted people to see things their way, rather than accepting that their way was the wrong answer. While I never felt specifically overworked, the dynamics there were culturally incompatible with what I want in a position.

    I want flexibility to serve and deliver value the way I know I can, and I want my employer to sit back and clap at that value, and pay me for my service; eventually, promote me so I can mentor others to get to my level. I don’t want someone not in authority being able to override how I deliver value simply because of senority.

  43. Magnus 9 years ago

    What an honest article. I like it. It drives home what I went through resigning from a Fortune 100 company a month ago to join a smaller but more successful fortune global 500.

    My shields were down when I returned with a masters degree from an ivy league coupled with a business certificate but never recognized AT ALL. My promotion was delivered after a needless about-face assessment and my extremely delicate and technically challenging job failed to attract any attention that I require training. Money got wasted as I was forced to rely on foreign consultants.

    I strategised by soldiering on and make bad excuses to my employer when they enquired whether I was happy. At the same time I learned so much from the consultants at the company’s expense and all the free time was used to learn another language and watching webinars.

    I dont think any star employee would ever reveal why they leave. It’s not their job to show their manager or management whom are paid handsomely on how to do their jobs.

    Just my two cents.

  44. Mrs G 9 years ago

    Great read …i do have to agree with T Slush, keeping yourself open and networking is a must. I recently left a great job at a top company for a better position at a smaller company due to the lack of respect at my former company/ team. The churn and burn in large corporations is exhausting for top performers, to constantly pick up slack from massive reorganizations. It’s just not worth it in the long run to kill yourself at a company that could care less about retention. I have zero feelings about my past company I had detached a long time ago, it took one thing one day and that was it. I gave my resignation the next day. I had multiple offers on the table for months and didn’t pull the trigger hoping things would get better . Large companies need to pay attention to top performers. It’s obvious when we have disengaged and when nobody seems to care it makes it all the easier to say peace out
    Thx for the post

  45. I read your article and also went through many of the comments by other readers.

    Yes, leading people is not easy.

    It never will be. No one person is exactly like the next. My values may not always be the same as your values.

    Is it still important that leaders do their damn best to lead even though the people we are leading are all different, value different things and want different things?


    Is it possible to retain good employees 100% of the time?


    The focus for all leaders is to do a damn good job at creating a good culture, leading, managing and achieving outcomes. Some good employees will stay, others won’t. And when they leave, it’s not always because of something you did or didn’t do.

    We all have free will. When an employee wants to leave, I don’t try to talk them into staying. I ask them questions to understand if they have considered all their options. If they have, then I fully support them leaving. No amount of talking to understand why they leave will make them stay. It will not change their minds and it will not make your relationship with them better. It is a futile exercise. I see them first as human beings who have needs and wants that needs meeting, rather than a human resource that needs replacing.

    If they are a star employee, I want to make sure I still maintain a good relationship with them after they leave. The professional circles we run in are very small. It pays to maintain a good relationship with everyone you’ve worked with, and part of that involves gracefully letting them go when they want to leave. I also always encourage people to accept coffee invitations if opportunities are presented to them, because I want them to build connections and add to their network. I also want them to go where their potential can best be maximised if the right opportunity presents itself, recognising that this job that they are in will not be the same job they will retire from.

    That, in my opinion, is what every leader of humans should think about.

  46. Martin Holland 9 years ago

    A couple of month ago I remembered what my wife said, when I was offered a new job. I was not sure to take the offer and my wife told me that she would support me in any decision I would take, but when I would not take the job offer she would expect me not to come home grumpy as I had done for a couple of month already. The same feeling was back.

    And working my way back to when the sheld dropped I realised that the lack of leadership in the company, the distrust from my direct manager, the lack of support, tipped the scale that was until then balanced by the great engineering and engineering management opportunities my company offered. The company is great, with great colleagues and great projects and challenges , but so badly managed.

    Dropping the shield, I will add to my vocabulary

  47. Usually it’s been boredom for me when I moved jobs – either that or I got fired XD

  48. Robert Diamond 9 years ago

    Very insightful and absolutely true. There are a few reasons people don’t say anything –
    1. It’s really hard to say to someone, “I really didn’t like the way you handled x” – you definitely answer to that in your essay, but there’s an emotional maturity that is required that a lot of people don’t have, or even if they do say something it’s in an antagonistic way.
    2. They don’t know – I just feel unhappy, but I’m not sure why.
    3. Fear of reprisal – while officially illegal and unethical, people do talk, and word gets around – to tell you the things that disgruntle me I have to trust that this won’t snap back at me because “you” (for many unsolved values of you) won’t hose my career, add a DNR to my HR record, give bad references, etc. It’s happened to me, as well as other political unpleasantness.
    4. Or, for real, they feel there’s a better fit at the new job, in which case that emotional maturity has to kick in, and they need to ask themselves if the hiring manager’s promises are true.

    Sorry to repeat things you already said, these are the points that stood out for me.

  49. The shield goes down when you realize that you are a pawn in the big game, that you are being played. It is passed the time when there was loyalty between the employee and the employer, now it is all about how much the employer can milk the employee before downsizing and sending the job to India or China!

  50. ELynn Frank 9 years ago

    I think you left one out: if your “employees” are actually contractors or vendors, they may jump ship the moment they’re offered something with more security, or a job where they’re getting a paycheck from the people they actually work for.

    The current “temp-to-maybe-hire” and long-term contractor processes in the business world mean that some of your best workers are constantly aware that they could be dropped at any moment from two directions–either the place they work could decide they’re no longer needed, or that company could sever ties with their actual employer.

    I walked away from the best job I’d had in fifteen years, working with brilliant, talented people on tasks I loved and was good at, because it was originally set as “four months temp for one big project.” At the end of the project, my contract was extended, but by that time, a previous boss I’d worked with for five years had something lined up for me.

    The new job’s work isn’t nearly as enjoyable, and it’s not directly in line with my best talents… but it’s stable. I know what I have to do to succeed at it; I know what criteria are used to judge my performance; I know I won’t be dropped without warning.

    Short version: if your company isn’t signing your workers’ paychecks, their loyalty is not to you, regardless of how well they fit the office culture.

  51. Vasil Yonkov 9 years ago

    You’re taking this leadership thing too seriously and it is draining you.
    After leaving their mark, everybody moves on and most of the time it’s not your fault.
    Cultivate an environment in which skillful and decent people will find value spending their time and efforts and people will be happy to come and work in the company.
    You can give your employees more freedom to their role. Let them shape the approach and direction of their work. I suppose one of the reasons you hired them is that you think they’re competent or they have potential and can provide value to the company. The people who took the job so they can learn and grow will find the way to do that. The people who want to tackle hard problems will find a way to focus on them.
    Leadership is a thing in which you aren’t required to do much. It is not about defining everything and telling people what to do, supervising the execution of the delegated assignment. It is about guidance to *your* people. Helping them to avoid walking into problems which are obvious in hindsight, but not-so-much when you are focused on your goal or deadline or whatever.

  52. There’s also ambition to consider. The greener pastures effect has a way of getting people to dream. And the lure often comes with a big step in rank, signing bonus and substantial raise, one that’s immediate. You don’t have to wait for the year-end evaluation to get it. This is especially relevant now, because companies are veering away from annual raises that compound over time, preferring instead to give bonuses that appear generous and are under management’s year-to-year discretion.

    I admire your willingness to take responsibility for your team’s turnover. And I’ve personally chosen professional fulfillment and workplace satisfaction over (2x!) pay and rank. Just pointing out that it’s not always you as the manager who is to blame.

    Of course, the fact that you care about your people means your team is less likely to suffer the kind of turnover that afflicts teams of managers who are callous to such factors.

  53. It’s interesting. Were their shields ever up? Should they ever be up – or even have a shield? I’m not certain I understand the benefit for an employee to have a shield. I believe you need to answer why they would want their shields before you figure out why they let them down.

  54. This list of bullet-pointed questions is a great one. These kind of questions are the exact ones that I address in a workshop on Management 3.0, and you really nailed it here. Do you mind if I repurpose?

  55. Happy People Still Quit - linked to this.
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  57. Derrick 8 years ago

    This is a truly great blog. I wish you were my boss.

  58. Ken Ashe 8 years ago

    Incredibly insightful. I’ve changed companies several times. I hadn’t thought about the moment “my shield dropped” before, and I’ve never been asked. I’ve also never asked an employee who left. But I will going forward.

  59. Shields Down | Rands in Repose – Joseph Valle linked to this.
  60. Michael S. 8 years ago

    To repeat Stephanie B’s comment “I left a long time ago.”

    This is the bigger problem. The shields are down but not visible to others. How do you help those that are still present to re-engaged in the process of creativity and productivity? First of all, how do you identify these folks as a team leader or manager? Easy you say. Just look for the non-producers. Nope. You can be productive but unhappy and unfulfilled at the same time. I should know.

    Sure you can learn a lot at the time of the exit interview if the employee is opened, which to be honest, most of us are not. But, how can you prevent the need for the exit interview in the first place? Yes, so far no answers Michael, just many questions. It all comes back to your WHY? Why are you doing what you’re in your profession and more importantly your personal life? Yeah, the kind of conversations we never dare to have as they lie outside optimizing hardware and improving the software. At the end of the day, no one really wants to have checked-out while still showing up each day. But sometimes you become trapped by frustration and resignation. It’s time we address this in our profession. You can look for others to do it or start yourself by reframing the problem. (

  61. Shields Down – Rands in Repose – HGW XX/7 linked to this.
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  63. Alexander Troup 6 years ago

    I like the central premise of your article. The moment of leaving is months after the decision to leave, but on the other hand I feel like there were shades of other things going on here.


    Ooft. Have some compassion for the people leaving and for yourself! Three years at a company is a long time to stay enthusiastic, and people get itchy feet at the finest of companies, especially sharp people. Discrediting their polite answer to a tricky question feels like a symptom of why they left in the first place.

    Being a leader doesn’t mean you get to control every micro-emotion that your team members face, but it feels like that’s what you’re advocating with your closing quote.

    “Every moment as a leader is an opportunity to either strengthen or weaken shields. Every single moment.”

    To my mind that’s just advocating micro-management. But humans are too complicated to micro-manage. If every single moment counts, then the system isn’t self-sustaining.

  64. This is an example of what I termed “Harris’s Law,” namely “The only reason your best people still work for you is that they haven’t considered working somewhere else.”

    A sad fact of the industry is that we tend to over-pay to acquire new talent and under-invest in retaining our best talent. A top engineer can always cross the street and get better pay, a better project, and more respect than they have right now. As soon as (like you mentioned) their shields are down and they start to wonder, they’re going to find a compelling reason to do better somewhere else.

    The best thing we can do is to keep our engineers engaged, happy, and looking forward to their future *here* so they don’t start to consider their future *there.

  65. I know this is old, but in re-reading it, it strikes me that there’s a fair amount of selection bias going on here, in that you are a good manager (I think) so the reasons that people leave are perhaps more subtle than they often are in general. Most of the jobs I’ve left, I was unhappy, my boss knew I was unhappy and knew why, and did nothing to fix it. Sometimes because the whole organization was borked in ways beyond him to fix, sometimes just because he needed me in the position I was in, sometimes who knows what.

    My most recent resignation, to the VP of Engineering of an 80-person startup, his first response was “Any reason other than the ones I already know about?”

    I guess my point is, in these cases my shields were down long before I got that first recruiter contact.

  66. As a Star Trek and finance nerd, I really enjoyed this!

  67. A wicked corporation has done `horrible stuff´ to the most beneficial person in my life. Shadowrun was right, we must put ’em corporations down. 😉

  68. Vicky 5 months ago

    Have you come across Helen Rose Ebert’s work? Her research coined this as ‘the crack of double’. Joe Macleod has worked on this in his work Ends.

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  72. 7 / 10 times people leave you. Not the organisation, Everyone in HR knows this.

    Any updates on how you’ve changed your leadership style since posting this?