The Great Resignation: A Deeper Dive

The “Great Resignation” appears to be a hot topic at the moment. I recently posted something on LinkedIn about this and it got a lot of traction, so, I thought it would be a good idea to delve a little deeper into it. Specifically, what we can do about it.

It looks like a large cohort of people have re-evaluated their world and decided that it’s time to make some changes to their lives. Leaving a job is a big step and COVID has been a trigger. However, this has been coming for a while now. It can’t be that much of surprise. A global pandemic simply moved the process along at a faster pace.

There are so many workplaces where the people resources are commoditised. They are merely transactional. This is not just about those in entry level positions or in the lower echelons of a hierarchy. Senior people are moving in their droves also. For me, it doesn’t really matter the level a person is at, nor the length of their tenure. People are moving and they are doing so, in many cases, because they are pissed off. People are tired of having an asshole for a boss or working in environments where they don’t feel valued/appreciated or being part of organisations that they don’t respect. It has been coming for a long time.

I accept that not all departures are due to this. Some are just moving to something better, not away from something that is bad. But, the sheer numbers of those moving away from something bad suggests that business is doing something wrong, and I would agree. This is costing organisations staggering amounts of money, and more than that, it has damaged people and resulted in sub-optimal performance. It’s about time that this was taken seriously.

As I see it, there are some simple solutions to get started with. Not necessarily easy, but certainly simple, and they won’t cost much in money terms compared to what is being lost. This was the thrust of my LinkedIn post and I want to dig into the solutions I put forward in a little more detail.

  1. Hire Better & Pay People Their Value

Attracting people can be difficult, attracting the right people more difficult still. When I say “hire better” I’m talking about a number of things that we can do to hit our mark and hire people that really add value to the team and the organisation.

Let’s start with profiling the role. This means getting really clear on what the role involves – how performance is measured, accountabilities, responsibilities, limits of authority, reporting lines, ownership, challenges, salary, bonuses, perks – essentially, anything that is relevant to the role. We need to be careful here in not over burdening a role. This role will ultimately be performed by a human, and humans have limits. Further to this, over burdening a human will result in a loss of engagement. We need to be reasonable.

Next, lets look at the team. What does the team need? Someone that will conform or someone that will respectfully challenge? Someone that is detail oriented or a more broad thinker? An extrovert or introvert? All of these are relevant and many more. Get specific. Get help if needed.

Finally, we profile the kind of human that we believe will be a high performer in this role. What will it take? We need to look at education, experience, past performance, career progression, potential, attitude and personality.

Once we have done this, we can recruit the individual that is closest to the requirements. Of course we need to pay appropriately too. What is the market rate for the role? Are we looking for someone at the top end or will we hire someone with less experience and seek to develop them? Whatever choice we are making, publish the salary range. It makes no sense to publish a recruitment advertisement without a salary range. When you don’t publish it, you simply get applications from people that won’t do the role for what you are actually paying. Also, keep in mind, that the idea of value can be different from the organisations perspective and the applicants perspective. This is one of the uncomfortable conversations that is vital to hiring well.

  1. Treat People With Respect

This should be a no-brainer for organisations that are seeking to foster an engaged culture. Sadly, it is not as common as one would hope. People are treated disrespectfully across the the full range of the hierarchy but it is far more common for people at the lower end to feel walked on. You cannot expect to retain people in the business if they are not respected. It is a basic human need and it really isn’t hard!

Most of the stories I hear about are of leaders at various levels engaging in double standards, poor communication, office politics, breaking trust, stealing credit, and more. These behaviours are toxic in any environment and in a work environment decimate performance. They need to be called out, zero tolerance. In doing this we also must facilitate difficult conversations that are fair. Too often they are not and we end up with a “victim” that feels disrespected, underappreciated and undervalued.

Lack of respect is also a problem within teams, between people at the same level. When this happens, trust is impacted and team performance is diminished. Leaders must be on top of this. The “elephants in the room” must be outed, if we want individuals and teams performing at their best.

  1. Listen & Act

One of the most powerful questions we can ask our colleagues, can also be one of the most damaging. That question is – what do you think? Or variants of it.

This can be damaging, not in the asking of the question itself, but what we do with the answer and ensuing conversation. If it is being asked as a platitude, you’d are wasting your time and damaging a relationship. However, when it is asked with genuine interest and followed up with a robust conversation – we are strengthening a relationship. People want to feel part of something, we want to be included and have our opinions validated with time and energy. This doesn’t mean that every opinion or idea is used, it means that it is discussed, taken seriously. When it is useful, credit is given and ownership is offered.

This is such a simple thing to do. It makes a huge difference. However, too many leaders are in organisations where they need to take the credit to survive, they need to be the ones with the ideas to survive. Organisations that use this survival of the fittest approach are unknowingly destroying their own reputations and ultimately creating a toxic environment. It’s not a good long term approach and will ultimately damage the bottom line.

  1. Keep Your Promises

“In a world where vows are worthless. Where making a pledge means nothing. Where promises are made to be broken, it would be nice to see words come back into power”

Chuck Palahniuk

The world of work is plagued with broken promises. In this kind of world, if you are the kind of organisation or leader that keeps a promise, you have a competitive advantage. It is always better to under promise and over deliver than to over promise and under deliver.

I want to start here with employer branding. It is largely a PR exercise and an example of over promising. In the struggle to win over the hearts and minds of prospective talent, employers are presenting, at best, an exaggerated image of themselves and, at worst, plain lies. I call it culture PR and it is a scourge. Years ago I was visiting a company and I sat in reception waiting for the CEO, I was impressed with the promises they proudly displayed on the wall. Values, mission statement, vision. They spoke eloquently about how good the company was and how proud they were of their employees. As I sat in reception for over an hour, left waiting without word, I witnessed several of the values displayed being broken in behaviours. When I eventually got to the CEO’s office, it went from bad to worse. The promises they made were being broken every day, principally by the CEO.

We see it with many companies now. We hear the stories of promises broken through behaviours. This only serves to demoralise and disengage people. They see these promises broken and wonder what they have gotten themselves into. I want to see organisations be real. I’m not naïve, I know the perfect organisation doesn’t exist. But the wilful, intentional, lies are damning. Don’t make promises you know you can’t keep. It’s that simple. I want to see a company that is striving to be great and not bullshitting people about how it really is. If you are making a promise as an organisation, you must work to keep that promise and not use it as a PR exercise.

For individuals too, the same rule applies. Never make a promise that you know you can’t keep. I get it. People will make promises to avoid the discomfort of saying no. But think about. You’re not fooling anyone but yourself. This applies to everyone in an organisation. Leader, team member, owner – whatever. The impact is the same when the promise is broken: avoidable disappointment.

Instead we need to refer to number 6!

  1. Implement a “No Asshole” Rule

My Leadership 101 rule is don’t be an asshole. It sounds catchy but has some depth. However, it doesn’t go far enough. There should be a “No Asshole” rule across the entire organisation. Stanford Professor Robert Sutton famously wrote an article for HBR that subsequently became a book called “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t” – it is well worth a read!

My suggestion here is to understand what asshole behaviour is in your organisation, identify those that behave in that way and call out the behaviour. Zero tolerance for asshole behaviour.

We can all be assholes from time to time. It happens. By zero tolerance I’m not suggesting people should be fired the first time they behave in that way. I am suggesting that they should be called out and that repeat offenders be subject to consequences. Before any of this can happen, the rules need to be established, clearly communicated and apply to EVERYONE.

The grey area needs to be established, because the rule can also be weaponised. This is why clarity is so important. An uncomfortable conversation can be weaponised, even when the instigator of the conversation does it right. This is something that we want to avoid. The weaponisation of the rule is breaking the rule.

Finding offence where there is none is just as bad as a leader engaging in aggressively threatening communication.

  1. Challenge, Honesty, Transparency & Difficult Conversations

This is where the rubber meets the road. So much of why people leave jobs is found in these four things. To create an innovative, creative, engaging and high performing organisation, we must create an environment where challenge, honesty, transparency and difficult conversations are the norm.

Here’s what I mean by these:

Challenge – the term psychological safety seems to be the buzz word around this at the moment. What it means is that people should feel free to challenge behaviours, ideas, strategies – anything – within the the organisation to anyone in the organisation without feeling threat of sanction. The challenger has some responsibility here too. A challenge made disrespectfully just won’t work for anyone. The challenge should be thought through and be presented with a possible solution.

Honesty – tell the truth. Don’t bullshit people. Let them know where they stand. Don’t engage in politics. Treat everyone as if they are valued, because they are. Be authentic. Don’t put people pedestals!

Transparency – explain decisions honestly, keep people in the loop, treat people fairly, avoid double standards. Real transparency will help people feel like they are part of something, like they belong. But, don’t confine it to the good stuff. We need transparency about the bad stuff too, maybe even more than the good stuff.

Difficult Conversations – It is human nature to avoid discomfort, we all do it to varying degrees. When we favour our comfort over doing the right thing, we have a problem. There are too many occasions when we avoid the important conversations or conduct them poorly. This discomfort is commonly expressed as aggression, silence or telling people what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear. When we do this, the relationship is damaged and sometimes, irrevocably. It can take a long time to earn the trust of someone, but a split second to lose it. There is too much at stake to avoid the conversation or allow our negative emotions to take over. There are many reason why we do this, for the most part they are irrelevant. Stop it.

If you’ve made it this far, well done! And, thank you. This could very easily keep going and turn into a book.

As I said at the outset, these are simple ideas and don’t need to cost huge amounts, certainly in comparison to the waste of the constant cycle of recruitment. People matter and want to feel like they matter. While this is primarily targeted to leadership, it is relevant to everyone. We all have a responsibility to be constructive in our behaviours at work. Leaders need to lead in this regard. Leaders at all levels of the organisation, whether you have a title or not.


Brian Downes

January 2020