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Are We Missing The Point Of The Great Resignation?


The Great Resignation has landed itself in the historical and current events section of Dictionary.com, which describes it as, “the widespread trend of a significant number of workers leaving their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The prevailing belief is that workers are voluntarily resigning from their jobs because they’re either dissatisfied with current working conditions or they’re reassessing their career and lifestyle due to the pandemic.

Many organizations and leaders believe that what we’re seeing is a direct result of the pandemic and work from home options. But that’s not entirely true.

As I follow the trend and have conversations with leaders, employees, and contractors, I’ve realized three things:

  1. The Great Resignation is not just a pandemic reaction.
  2. People are rejecting workplaces that create burnout.
  3. The idea of improving how we work is a weak strategy without addressing purpose and people.

It’s Not Just a Pandemic Reaction

As we collect more data and have more conversations, we see that the pandemic is not the sole cause of The Great Resignation. And the people handing in their notice aren’t just 20 or 30 year olds, but mid-career employees.

Many of the employees didn’t quit simply because they wanted to return to working from home. They quit because they were tired of working in high-stress environments; they were tired of having their jobs negatively affecting their health; and they were tired of working for companies that they believed didn’t care about them. Those were the reasons I walked away from Corporate America in 2015.

This sentiment has been bubbling up for years and shifted the centrality of work in modern life. Not everyone finds their identity in work or wants to climb the career ladder. In light of that, shouldn’t our approach to people and why and how they work with us shift, too? 

“… the Great Resignation is not a mad dash away from the office; it’s the culmination of a long march toward freedom,” says Adam Grant, organizational psychologist and author.

“The debate about whether work should be in-person, remote-first or hybrid is too narrow. Yes, people want the freedom to decide where they work. But they also want the freedom to decide who they work with, what they work on and when they work.”

In other words, people want to have choice and flexibility in the work they do. They want a say. And they don’t want to sacrifice their health, wellbeing, and every waking hour in exchange for a paycheck.

The Reality of Burnout

Many workers who excel in their role have been burnt out over and over again. They are saying, “No more.” This is the reality of the Great Resignation.

So many people have been overworked, exhausted, and pushed to the breaking point, that it’s made them physically sick. They’re looking to leave their jobs and now is as good of a time as any, especially with all the current job openings.

I’ve spoken with leaders of nonprofits and companies who say, “The Great Resignation is real. We’re having people quit because work is just continuing to go forward much as it was before – with long hours, heavy workloads, and tight deadlines – and people are saying, ‘I’m out. I don’t want to do this anymore.’”

The Shift Organizations Need to Make

Instead of leading with retention, talent acquisition, and how we work, organizations should start with why, i.e. their purpose, and who they work with, i.e. their people.

Purpose at Work

People increasingly want a sense of purpose through their work. That requires two things: for a company to be clear on its purpose and for it to connect its corporate purpose through its departments, teams, and individuals.

Clarifying purpose involves answering questions like: What is the purpose of {insert your company’s name}? Where are we going? What is the purpose of {insert team’s name}? How does the role of {insert team member’s name} connect to this purpose?

If you can’t answer these questions, then your people can’t either. And it’s going to be increasingly hard to find – and keep – people when they aren’t sure why they spend 8+ hours a day doing what they do.

Lack of clarity around purpose also leads to flaccid decision-making, which is something leaders can’t afford.

People, the Human Part of Work

People also want a more human workplace. We want to be humans at work. We don’t want to fear punishment for raising honest questions about our jobs or not taking a vacation because we think it will negatively impact our performance rating.

Fear of retribution or lack of “psychological safety” is directly linked with people looking to leave their jobs according to the Workhuman IQ Fall 2021 Report.

Gallup puts it this way, “People want a good job and a life well lived.” We don’t want to struggle on a daily basis to make our well-being a priority because our job demands conflict with things like sleep, being able to take a 20-minute walk, or picking up a sick child from school.

Companies need a people strategy that goes beyond organization charts, role descriptions, and talent lifecycle management. They need to shape the culture and conditions to create the kind of success that enables both people and business to win. Leaders need to define the values and behaviors that will guide how the company works and do the hard work to design conditions for both performance and personal success.

Don’t miss the point of the Great Resignation. Acknowledge that it’s more than people wanting to work from home and embrace the opportunity to change the game by shifting from how you work to why and who.

Do you agree? What’s your take on the trends we’re seeing?

Read Other Blogs on Leadership

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Three Things Businesses Need To Reconsider In The Wake Of The Great Resignation
Why Every Leader Needs a Winning Vision: And Why Not Having One Can Sabotage Your Success

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