At the halfway point of the year, I decided to look back at The Great Resignation of 2021—a fascinating social phenomenon with plenty of leadership lessons to learn. Due to global disruption in the workplace from COVID-19, how we work, where we work, and why we work was upended. As a change leadership speaker, I found a few interesting leadership principles emerge as we watch and study the fallout and rebuilding.
A recent Pew Research Center survey reveals many reasons people quit their jobs in search of something else. Some of the reasons are practical and necessary. For instance: childcare issues—are a problem for many working families when schools shut down. Depending on the children’s ages, many mothers and fathers were forced to quit their jobs to become full-time, in-home caretakers for their kids. But other reasons on the Pew Research list reveal a lack of leadership within organizations. These reasons serve as indicators signaling motivation to quit during the shakeup.
Leadership lessons abound; I’ve first observed that we like ruts. Ruts feel comfortable and lull us into the false belief we’re moving forward and being productive. In the business world, “ruts” might be more commonly called “systems” or “comfort zones.” But if constant and purposeful outside-the-box thinking isn’t regularly pushing back against the structure-designed systems, organizations risk systems turning into ruts. And ruts, when they are fully operational, erode from the inside out. They cause employees to want to jump ship when given the chance. The status quo becomes the standard, and maintaining it becomes the expectation.
Pew Research lists “No Opportunities for Advancement” as the number two reason people leave their companies. No opportunities for advancement reveal a company that is stuck in a rut. They rely on their employees to do what they’ve always done for as long as possible. This rut-like mindset creates boring, non-innovative companies doing the “same old thing” year after year.
A leader with an understanding of vision, and its power, puts people over product and production. They see their employees not as “labor” but as talent. Talent that they can promote and shift roles and titles to suit the employee and their strengths. Companies won’t operate in ruts when employees work from their strengths and reach their advancement goals based on their abilities. They will be focused performers.
The second reason people participated in The Great Resignation of 2021 could have been preventable with exemplary leadership. “Felt Disrespected at Work,” landing high atop that list at #3, is appalling. It’s an indicator of an unhealthy work environment. People feel disrespected when they aren’t valued. Valuing another human being is paramount to success! And creating a culture that values the employees goes way beyond a couple of ping-pong tables and an all-day snack bar.
Leadership lessons to learn are numerous. Building an environment of value starts at the top. The CEO and leadership team must be wholly committed to this mission. No CEO or leadership team can fulfill this task 100% of the time. Still, when mistakes and failures occur, this mission is so embedded in their philosophy they immediately take responsibility for their error and make them right. Great leaders are synonymous with humility.
Creating a work environment people want to be part of requires a humble leader at the helm. Unfortunately, few leaders uphold humility as a core value because “felt disrespected at work” is one of the top three reasons people want to leave. This challenging work climate was the perfect excuse to vacate the buildings and companies that allowed this toxic work environment to exist.
What we know now about the pandemic is that flexibility was learned through necessity. The pandemic forced companies to create flexible work schedules for their employees. They had no choice. People were still at their desks, but the desks, computers, kids, pets, and life were all at home. We have become more flexible because of the pandemic, and many people believe flexibility should stay.
So much so that “Not Enough Flexibility to Choose When to Put in Hours” is reason number five in the Pew Research study. Employees could now “see behind the curtain.” The curtain was ripped down and tossed aside during the pandemic. As work went completely virtual, employees were allowed to recalibrate their definition of work and productivity. New hours, agile pivots, and innovative strategies emerged. We adjusted to interacting with two-dimensional coworkers on our screens.
The Pew Research study reveals employees found some of these adjustments much more accommodating to their work-life balance. However, it seems as though when the “back to work” machine started up once again, a good percentage were not willing to participate and jumped ship.
Again, the leadership lessons start at the top, revealing a severe lack of understanding of employees’ lives over the last two years, not considering some of the benefits that emerged from the more flexible schedules. There are some businesses and industries where the flexible model doesn’t work. But flexibility with the schedule has emerged as a high value for employees in this current age.
Flexibility in the workplace reveals foundational trust in employees. Many will rise to the occasion when employees are trusted to get their work done within the expected guidelines but trusted enough to design their schedules. Why? Because of the satisfaction, they receive from their healthy work-life balance. It will also quickly weed out employees who can’t keep up their end of the bargain. Maintaining flexible work schedules is a new top value for employees. A good leader will take note of and integrate this value into the structure of their company.
Life has been upended, and there are many leadership lessons to learn. However, great leaders can adjust and make beneficial changes for the sake of their employees and customers. Leaders see a massive upending as an opportunity rather than a disaster. And leaders who can learn from The Great Resignation of 2021 will always have loyal, passionate employees.
Please call me if you are interested in developing vision-minded, compassionate leaders with a growth mindset. At Tom Flick Communications, I’ve been privileged to work with the world’s most innovative and dynamic organizations to succeed in a highly competitive world.