Why the great resignation is a good thing

Across America last year almost 20 million people quit their jobs. The trend continues and has spread to other developed economies as well. The cost to companies has been enormous in terms of hiring, training and inefficiency losses from having posts vacant and the time it takes for newcomers to get up to speed.

Speculation about causes is widespread. An article in Harvard Business Review suggest that difficulties in rehiring stem in large part form inadequate, over-automated hiring platforms. This may or not be the case, but why did people leave in the first place?

Three reasons stand out from a sample of conversations with employees and with senior HR executives in a study I co-led for The Conference Board earlier this year. One is that the relative freedom and psychological safety of working from home at a time of crisis, when bosses were obliged to be sympathetic hasn’t carried over into post-Covid working. Instead of seizing the opportunity to develop new, more inclusive leadership styles and more collegiate team cultures, many leaders have reverted to type. The situation is made worse by an epidemic of imposter syndrome, with many mangers desperately trying to exert more control over the uncontrollable – and creating environments of low psychological safety.

A second reason relates to social isolation. During the Covid crisis, people were prepared to accept a degree of loneliness. As life returns slowly to something like normal, however, they need greater sense of companionship and belonging. When this hasn’t been forthcoming, it’s not surprising that they will seek a change in circumstances.

The third reason relates to the model I created several decades ago. Most people’s jobs have three components: stretch, where we are doing new things and accumulating significant learning, exploit, where we are applying that experience to other situations (so learning is still happening but less intensely) and coast or freewheel, where there is little or no learning. The balance we require between these evolves over time and with changes in circumstance. When the proportions we want are those that we have, we feel motivated, in balance and engaged. When there is persistent insufficient balance, people feel reduced job satisfaction and are likely to think about moving on. 

The solutions to each of these problems are not simple, but some practical steps include:

1.     Making it safer for leaders, who can’t let go, to seek help. This has to start with reassurances and support from above – an open recognition that the transition isn’t easy. Expert coaching and mentoring can help the executives plan a gradual relaxation of the fear they are afraid to acknowledge. With this support, team coaching can enable the team and the leader to work together to create a different, inclusive, environment where leadership responsibilities are shared.

2.     Teams that thrived through the epidemic learned how to extend emotional and practical support to colleagues from a distance. It’s not that difficult – showing interest in each other’s work and well-being, having regular check-ins as a team and as pairs within a team can have a massive positive impact.

3.     As the role of an effective leader moves more and more towards coaching and away from controlling, it’s possible to have much more open conversations about the work a direct report is doing and the work they will find most fulfilling. These conversations can be both one to one and collective. 

And what about the perspective of the employee? In many cases, the experience has been a jump from one uncomfortable position to another. A simple mind-shift can be of real help here. Instead of emphasising getting away from the current role – which may precipitate a hasty move – it may be more productive to have clarity about the ideal role you seek. Being upfront and open about this ambition may have several positive results:

·      People in your network may point you towards suitable opportunities

·      You can have conversations with senior people in the same organisation about creating your dream role

·      Your boss might surprise you by offering changes that make you want to stay,

More generally a question for the top team in an organisation and for HR is: “What has to happen for talent to value a longer term working here?” Or to put it another way: “How can we turn the Great Resignation into the Great Stay?”

© David Clutterbuck 2022




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