“The tongue has he power of life and death”

Proverbs 18:21a

Edgar Allan Poe began The Cask of Amontillado with these words: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” Poe’s protagonist, Montresor, takes his revenge by getting Fortunato drunk and walling him off alive in a crypt where he will scream for help while slowly starving to death.
When I first read the story in 7th grade, I thought that it was not only creepy, but overblown. It was out of balance. Montresor did nothing for a thousand injuries, but murders a man in such a cruel way because of an insult. It seemed so bizarre.
The Disaffected
Over the last three days, I talked to three different people in three different organizations who were planning to leave their companies. They were not leaving because they were bad workers, or they had engaged in theft, or because they hated their jobs. All of them liked what they did, but each had been slighted by their bosses.
Now, I found that interesting because a slight should not have been enough to cause them to leave. When I asked one directly about the cause for his departure, I was told of such a small slight that his reasons appeared almost childish. I expected something much larger.
But each slight was more than a slight. It represented something bigger. What followers want more than almost anything else from their leaders is support. They want to know that their boss is in their corner. The boss does not have to be charismatic, good looking, or even particularly good at his job if the employee knows that he will be supported when times get tough.
Each slight magnified this lack of support and these employees predictably reacted to the breach of the social contract.
Voice, Exit, Loyalty and Neglect
Organizational researchers have found that people react predictably to dissatisfaction. In 1970, Albert Hirschman wrote Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. In it, he described how employees deal with dissatisfaction.[1] When people come to an organization, they usually give the organization the benefit of the doubt. When management fails to demonstrate support, they may become dissatisfied. When they are dissatisfied, they are left with one of four basic responses.

  • Exit: They determine to leave the organization
  • Voice: They speak up in an attempt to persuade supervisors to improve the situation
  • Loyalty: They decide to support the organization anyway
  • Neglect: They do the minimal and focus on outside interests.

EVLN are four common alternatives. Mercifully getting the boss drunk and walling him in a crypt to starve to death is not an alternative.
Some research has been conducted to predict when employees will choose which option. In one such analysis, Michel J. Withey and William H. Cooper found the following:

  • People choose exit when the cost of voice is high, they have little hope of the situation changing, and an alternative is available.
  • People choose voice when the costs are low (e.g., they feel free to speak up and management is not for retribution). Yet, when managers are unwilling to hear alternative views, people become more reluctant to speak and this creates a negative cycle.
  • People choose loyalty when the costs of voice and exit are both high. But loyalty, in this circumstance, does not mean giving your all. In contrast, they are more often, “biding their time,” waiting for circumstances to change. This employee may be loyal to a few select people, but they do not experience loyalty to the organization. What they experience is a feeling more like captivity to the organization. The same variables that predict this kind of loyalty also predict neglect.
  • People choose neglect when the cost of voice and exit are both high. With both captive loyalty and neglect, people have little psychological investment in the organization. The person who chooses neglect does the minimum to get by. Sadly, this is only a reflection of their manager’s receptivity to their needs. [2]

In the study of the prediction of EVLN, the causes were the same for all. The difference was found in personal variables. These included the cost of exercising voice, the likelihood of success, the attractiveness of the situation, and alternatives that might exist. In other words, when management is demoralizing, they decide whether speaking up will get them in trouble or whether their concerns even will be heard. Over time, they become demoralized and disconnected from the organization. If they find an alternative and the situation has not improved, they exit.
This means that the best people—the ones who are most marketable—often choose to leave when they can’t speak up or when they will not be heard. It is a recipe for competitive disadvantage. The authors of the study found two basic sequences:

Two possible sequences were suggested by the interviews. Both are highly rational accounts of what people say they will do if they are dissatisfied. The first sequence starts with voicing dissatisfaction to the immediate supervisor. If voice doesn’t solve the problem, people may take their dissatisfaction to a higher level, and if that is unsuccessful, they either become silent and put up with it, or they quit. The availability of another job was viewed as a key factor in the choice of which to choose if voice failed. If people couldn’t find a better job, they would most likely reevaluate the problem, adjust their beliefs, and stay.
The second sequence begins with loyalty. If nothing changes, and enough time passes, the next response is voice. If voice is unsuccessful, the employee will then resort to exit or neglect, the choice among these depending largely on the availability of alternatives. Interviewees saw the magnitude of the problem as the main factor in determining whether to start with loyalty or voice. The bigger the problem, the noisier the response.[3]

Join A Company, Leave A Boss
In First Break All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman wrote:

An employee may join Disney or GE or Time Warner because she is lured by their generous benefits package and their reputation for valuing employees, but it is her relationship with her immediate manager that will determine how long she stays and how productive she is while she is there.[4]

There is truth in the old adage that people join a company, but they leave a boss. Managers have far more power than they think to motivate or demoralize their employees. The scholarship on organizational leadership demonstrates this clearly. According to multiple exhaustive meta-analyses, leadership has a medium-level positive effect on organizational commitment and a strong positive effect on organizational trust[5]. In this light, a slight is not just a slight. It is a sign that you are not valuable—that you will not be heard.
A Positive Cycle
The good news is that it works the other way too. If you are like most people, you have probably not experienced too much praise at work.  But sincere appreciation leads to greater productivity.
One might argue that a manager does not have enough time to spend walking around praising employees, but the whole premise of Ken Blanchard’s and Spencer Johnson’s One Minute Manager is that positive contact with your people does not have to take a lot of time. The idea is to “catch them doing something right” and sincerely appreciate them for it.[6]
Instead of the damage that is produced by a slight, recognition demonstrates that management hears and approves. It not only denies the EVLN cycle, but also creates a positive cycle where employees work harder and give their very best.
If this were a regular practice, these three disaffected employees would not be looking for greener pastures. They would be more motivated than ever to complete their manager’s objectives and make him look good.
Beyond Management
The same process works outside the office too. A salesman who insults his customers will have fewer of them. In contrast, many of us have purchased from someone because we liked him or her personally.
The networker who is disrespectful to others will find that his network has shriveled. But we hold networker who actively promotes our interests in high regard.
How do your words affect others?
End Notes
[1] Hirschman, A. O. (1970). Exit, voice, and loyalty: Responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states.
[2] Withey, M. J., & Cooper, W. H. (1989). Predicting  exit, voice, loyalty, and neglect. Administrative Science Quarterly, 34,  521-539.
[3] Withey, M. J., & Cooper, W. H. (1989). Predicting  exit, voice, loyalty, and neglect. Administrative Science Quarterly, 34,  521-539. (p. 537).
[4] Buckingham, M., & Coffman, C. (1999). First, break all the rules: What the world’s greatest managers do differently. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. (p. 36)
[5] Karadağ, E. (2015). Leadership and organizational outcomes: Meta-analysis of empirical studies. Cham: Springer.
[6] Blanchard, K. H., & Johnson, S.  (1983). The One Minute Manager. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.