Getting to the Root Cause of the Great Resignation

Businessman and businesswoman walking and talkingIn just two months, over 11,500,000 people quit their jobs. The knee-jerk explanation you most often hear for this historic spike in turnover usually has something to do with COVID-19, a logical and safe place to go given all the givens that come with a globally disruptive pandemic. On the other hand, if you’re the kind of person that tries to find a little bit of good in everything, COVID-19 significantly reduced the traditional trauma associated with quitting.

The Role of Leadership

While it seems easy to blame the cause of the Great Resignation on COVID-19, it likely makes more sense to look at leadership.

How Leaders Are Judged

  • Results: Leaders deliver results! They consistently hit productivity targets and they meet or exceed bottom-line, net-net, outcomes-related expectations
  • Engagement: Leaders connect with the people they influence. They build trust. They gain respect. They earn the benefit of the doubt. They figure out a way to tap into the discretionary effort of the members of their team, and they recognize those efforts when they are given. In a word, leaders get followers to care.
  • Retention: Leaders establish and enhance the commitment and loyalty of key talent. Good people want to work for good people.

The Role Leaders Play

You could make a strong argument that the skill set distinguishing elite senior executives is their ability to identify the root cause, help others recognize it as such, and then mobilize a coordinated response. This is a process that bears a striking similarity to the deployment of the Situational Leadership® process by frontline managers at the base of an organization:

  • Step 1 – Identify the task
  • Step 2 – Align on the readiness of the individual or team to perform that task
  • Step 3 – Employ a customized approach that provides the highest probability of success

The contrast between the two is grounded in the complexity of the landscape senior executives navigate.

In that context, consider senior executives tasked with the responsibility of identifying the root cause of something like the “Great Resignation,” and then mobilizing a coordinated response. The surface analysis presents a streamlined explanation for causality:

Disruptive change, introduced by a global pandemic, provided a once-in-a-lifetime set of circumstances where employees around the world resigned from the workforce in mass. That cycle is in the process of normalizing.

But beneath that surface further consider that perhaps the root cause of the “Great Resignation” had more to do with enduring and highly familiar challenges than anything else. As is the case with most truly disruptive change, COVID-19 undeniably provided both the backdrop and the opportunity for record numbers of employees to transition, but why were they leaving and what did they hope to find?

The Role of Workplace Dignity

According to research by The Josh Bersin Company, the answer to those questions had something to do with workplace dignity (WPD). Low levels of WPD are the fulcrum around which organizational challenges like employee engagement and retention revolve. In essence, WPD is comprised of:

  1. Inherent dignity: The respect and consideration each of us deserves as human beings. It is unconditionally afforded to everyone (or at least should be!). It could also be thought of as a moral baseline of sorts for how employees should be treated.
  2. Earned dignity: Praise, recognition and acknowledgement based on contribution. It is conditionally afforded based on outcomes achieved due to effort exerted. It could also be thought of as distinction received based on value generated.
  3. Remediated dignity: If you make a mistake, acknowledge it and accept the consequences for your misstep, can you fully recover? So, as opposed to the dignity you are due (inherent) and the dignity you earn, if or when you miscalculate, can you earn dignity back?

So, as a disruptive change in any form hits and the normal flow of work has been upset, disordered or, perhaps, even rendered obsolete, valuable employees take stock of their existing WPD and surmise that the grass simply must be greener elsewhere.

Leaders that help others recognize that the root cause of challenges, like attrition during disruptive change might well have something to do with aggregate WPD, frequently double down on their efforts to build a culture defined by effective leadership. This is by no means a quick-fix-response. It is a long-term strategy. A strategy that views leadership, at all levels in an organization, as a viable and proactive approach to enhancing WPD.