The Great Resignation: A Symptom of an Age-Old Challenge

The Great Resignation: A Symptom of an Age-Old Challenge

From April to June of this year over 11,500,000 people quit their jobs. Beyond reasonable doubt, the historically traumatizing act of marching into your boss’ office and articulating your intent to “move on” while sliding your two-week notice on to his or her desk has not only been normalized, but it has also, evidently, become rather routine.

The knee-jerk explanation you most often hear for this historic spike in turnover usually has something to do with COVID-19. Which is really 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, I suppose you could say that, at a minimum, COVID-19 significantly reduced the traditional trauma associated with “moving on” (the boss’ office and the envelope with the two-week notice have long since been replaced by a three-line email and perhaps a Zoom call).

Beyond all that and in complete transparency, I wonder about attributing the root cause of the “Great Resignation” to anything other than leadership. As we are well-aware by now, leaders are judged (and make no mistake about it, they are JUDGED!) on the following parameters:

  • 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 (about the work they do and the people they do it with)
  • Retention: Leaders establish and enhance the commitment and the loyalty of key talent. Good people want to work for good Intuitively, we have known this forever and we have been able to point to one source of documented evidence after another ever since Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman published “First, Break All the Rules”1 in 1999

Perhaps I am just lonely and spend far too much time thinking about this kind of stuff, but I am increasingly convinced we are in an aggressive pattern of priority migration when it comes to these three elements of leader evaluation. There was a time (not too long ago) when the scorecard for leaders was skewed almost exclusively toward Results. Engagement and retention received comparative lip service (i.e., certainly part of the narrative but rarely the central theme).

I would offer that is no longer the case. In the paraphrased words of Hubert Joly (former CEO of Best Buy and author of “The Heart of Business”):

Results are an imperative that are really a function of a leader’s ability to connect the noble purpose of the organization to the personal dreams of everyone that works there.2

A profound (and perhaps a bit unsettling) perspective! But consider a couple of questions in the context that perspective provides. All other things being equal, if a leader is truly able to drive engagement, and connect with the people in his/her path:

  1. Does the probability of hitting productivity targets increase, decrease or remain unaffected?
    1. The research on engagement at this point paints a clear picture. When employees go “all in” and exert discretionary effort, good things happen!
  2. Does the probability of retaining key talent increase, decrease or remain unaffected?
    1. It increases! Of course! If you buy into your organization’s noble purpose and have a sense of fulfillment and dignity regarding the work you do, you are much more likely to stay right where you are regardless of what goes on around you and is so very far outside of your control!

So, as you reflect on everything you have read or heard about the “Great Resignation,” please at least consider the notion that COVID-19 might just be a globally visible symptom of an age-old leadership challenge.


1Buckingham M, Coffman C. First, Break all the Rules. Gallup Press; 2016.
2Joly H, Lambert C. The Heart of Business. Harvard Business Review Press; 2021.