The “Great Resignation” is upon us.
According to one study conducted by Microsoft, 41% of the global workforce will consider leaving their current employer within the year. The Wall Street Journal reports that more U.S. workers are quitting their jobs now than at any time in the last 20 years.
Why the impending exodus? Some economists point to the historic level of savings (north of $2 trillion) Americans have amassed while home-ridden during the pandemic creating the breathing room needed to consider a career change. Others point to more psychological factors: after the harrowing experience of a global pandemic, fewer people will hang around in a job they don’t like for the sake of a paycheck. (Some pundits have dubbed ours the “Life is Too Short Economy,” or as Ezra Klein called it on his podcast, the “Take This Job and Shove It” economy.)
Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: to remain competitive in the marketplace, companies must figure out how to retain their core people. Companies have long engaged in a War for Talent — but that battle just got fiercer, and the stakes higher.
So — how do executives ensure that their best and brightest do not run for the hills?
The first step is to recognize that this is the wrong question.
“How do we make sure people don’t leave?” is a fear-based line of inquiry rooted in defensiveness and reactivity. It leads to desperation (“Is Brandon looking at other jobs? What will we do?”) and reeks of paranoia (“I heard Company X is revamping their bonus structure!”) An organization might easily contort itself to seem attractive to current and prospective employees and lose its sense of self along the way.
Instead, leaders can ask a better question: “How can we make this the best possible place to work?” That’s not a fear-based question. It’s an ambition-based question. It’s not outward focused — it’s inward focused, concerned with what it can control and unperturbed by what it can’t. It leads to curiosity and intentionality and authenticity.
So how do you do it? How do you make your place to work the best place to work for your employees?
The answer is simple: the employee must see a compelling future at the organization.
We can break this idea of a “compelling future” down further into three parts. A compelling future is one in which:
- What is important to me is addressed.
- I am recognized for making a noteworthy contribution.
- I am a part of something bigger than myself.
1) My Needs Are Met
To be sure, for many employees, the decision to take another job boils down to simple dollars and cents: they want to get paid more. Staying competitive in the domain of salary is important — if you’re unsure of where you stand here, talk to a compensation expert. Fair compensation is a hallmark of the current economic moment, and if you don’t pay, employees will make you pay.
For other employees, it’s a logistical concern. Many employees rearranged their lives around a remote work lifestyle. (In my own case, my husband works from home, and we now rely on him to pick up our child from school.) Many will now insist on a job that will allow them to continue this lifestyle.
But for many employees, their needs for their job aren’t purely financial or logistical or nearly as straightforward. Their cares run deeper and are more nuanced than that.
Some employees want to take on more responsibility in their roles. Some want to be continuously learning. Some want to have opportunities to expand beyond their comfort zone. Some are looking for a sense of community (or even family) from their work. Some want to know that they are free to give input, and that their input is acknowledged and implemented.
More likely than not, an employees’ needs combine a few or even all of these. These needs may not easily come to the surface, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. And when it comes to the decision to stick it out at a particular company, the degree to which these needs are recognized and addressed can make all the difference.
2) My Contribution is Clear and Recognized
People want to know that they have contributed, and there are two important considerations when it comes to fostering a sense of contribution: clarity of contribution and recognition of contribution.
Clarity of contribution happens when an employee understands where the organization is headed and sees clearly how they uniquely help the company get there. If an organization aims to go from $50 million to $100 million in five years, what does my job have to do with making that happen? How are my skills and capacities being leveraged to move the needle for the collective?
To understand how their work fits within the big picture, employees need to see the big picture in the first place. There’s a tendency for leaders to inoculate employees from the big picture. They pay lip service to transparency, but their actions say clearly: “stay in your lane and focus on your job.” But there’s a unique satisfaction in seeing the big picture, and further seeing your contribution to turning it into a reality. Disconnection from the big picture plants the seed of future de-motivation.
Recognition of contribution happens when an employee knows and experiences regularly that they are valued. Readers won’t need convincing on this point. We all understand how crucial it is for people to feel acknowledged, not only for the work that they do, but for who they are. It’s best to avoid generic platitudes (“Jim, you’re doing great.”) and instead opt for specific, authentic, and consistent recognition (“Jim, the report you put together made a real difference in how we showed up to the meeting with Client X. And your can-do attitude is such a contribution to this team.”) The feeling of being recognized in this way is tremendously gratifying, and having it consistently can make an employee want to stick around for more.
3) I’m Part of Something Bigger than Myself
People want purpose. Millennials — who comprise the majority of the workforce — especially want to feel purposeful. They want to know that their work makes a difference.
This is especially true in the age of stakeholder capitalism. More and more, people look to business to be a force for good in society. Moreover, employees are holding their employers accountable to their ideals.
And so, one way for a company to retain key talent is to have a clear sense of its purpose and values, to operate in integrity with that purpose and those values, and to consistently re-presence that purpose and those values.
It’s easy to lose sight of purpose in a sea of day-to-day pressures. For instance, our firm works with several companies in healthcare. The job can be grueling. Burnout is common. Turnover is always an issue. What we’ve seen is that the simple act of re-connecting to purpose goes a long way in re-generating commitment and engagement along the way. When leaders remind team members of the real, tangible difference they are making — in the lives of patients and their families, in the communities they serve — the daily struggles are easier to bear. Continually putting that sense of purpose front and center doesn’t solve every problem, but it’s a powerful act of re-framing.
Focusing on What You Can Control
There is so much about the current talent environment that we cannot control. It’s important to note the macro-economic factors at play here. The economy in general and the labor market in particular is undergoing some fundamental shifts as we regain our economic footing in this post-pandemic period. As a business leader, we can do our best to stay in tune with these shifts — but we cannot control those shifts.
Further, we cannot ultimately control the decisions of our employees on where they choose to work. (And that’s a very good thing!) In some cases, we will have done all we can, and they will still bid adieu.
But exploring the questions outlined in this article is an example of how to focus on what we CAN control — and will put you in a great position to navigate the “Great Resignation.”