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The Great Resignation Wake-up Call: What it Teaches Leaders About Keeping Valuable Talent

The significant rate of people exiting stage left from their work is one of many challenges we have faced during our Covid times. It is a wake-up call to all businesses to both understand why people stay or leave and what we can do to retain valuable employees for the future.

Decades of studying employee engagement, conducting employee exit interviews and negotiating ways to keep key employees who have become “loose in the saddle” have taught me to pay attention to this and what we should do to motivate people to stay.

Why Employees Leave an Organization

Here are the key reasons I find employees become vulnerable to leave.

  1. They rethink their life and purpose. While this is typically unique to a specific person, Covid created major upheaval, causing many to reconsider what the heck they are doing. Such threats create existential moments when people reframe who they are and what they want and should be doing. People had time alone to reflect on their lives, what is meaningful and how to discover hope with new choices and experiences. Pivots and changes are understandable ways to reinvent ourselves.
  2. They feel the organization’s mission and purpose has become muddy, lost or unclear. As a result, they don’t feel they are doing work that is important anymore. If they identify with the goal or the organization, and believe their colleagues have the same high standards about how to achieve it – they develop deep, long-term commitments to reaching the goals.
  3. Their role is unclear. Employees want to know their responsibilities, the expectations which are set for them and how they are doing. If communication about this is not both clear and candid, they become frustrated.
  4. They do not believe their voice counts. If a work culture is biased and only certain people’s ideas or opinions matter, employees decide to find where they will be values more.
  5. The company cannot or does not provide the tools and resources to do the job right. Trying to do work without the resources becomes “mission impossible” and employees don’t like to have their reputations sullied by projects that are doomed to under-deliver.
  6. They do not get recognized for jobs well done, personal contributions made or willingness to help above and beyond the call of duty. Psychologically, people like their work when they know – and are recognized – for making a difference. People come to work with four “unconscious doubts” they aim to resolve: Am I competent? Am I significant? Am I likable? Can I cope? Recognition calms the doubts, which increases jobs well done!
  7. The organization does not pay attention to their personal development and goals to grow professionally. If an organization does not offer formal or informal chances for employees to develop new skills and have new experiences, work can become stale. A balance of old and new keeps people engaged. Managers who check- in on people and coach them let them know they are valued.
  8. They don’t like their boss. Employees who respect and value a good manager will stay loyal and committed. If they disrespect the boss, they move out and on.
  9. They don’t have a chance to shine. Employees generally want to be proud of their work. If they don’t have the chance to do work about which they are proud, they will find another way to show they can do great work.
  10. They don’t like the people. People look for friends and mates with whom they enjoy working. Creating ways to build strong relationships among staff members is key. If people like their colleagues, they have more engagement and stamina. This helps any organization make it through thick and thin. Managers need to build time in for team-building, celebration of success, social networking and recognition for who does extraordinarily well on a special task. Creating diversity with a robust mix of employees increases the chances people find fellowship. A little fun time helps, too.
  11. They aren’t paid enough. This is actually the least critical of the reasons I hear. Many employees can be enticed by higher salaries outside. Yet, the reason they start looking is because of the first ten issues cited. Salary is compelling, but many employees can be talked out of making a leap if they are assured the dissatisfiers are resolved. Employees want to know they are paid fairly and competitively. Throwing more money at them instead of resolving what is really bugging them only let’s you “rent” them for a little longer. While companies today are increasing compensation to recruit new talent and cover their churn, it is best not to count on it for true retention.

Perhaps the silver lining from the Great Resignation is that it causes us to evaluate what we can do in the future to improve. A first step is to assess how well your company addresses the issues noted above.

Many of the factors are psychological. It reminds me of futurist Edie Weiner’s forecast that “Companies will not hire employees. They will hire minds. HR professionals will become the most important executives in companies.” It strikes me as the right time to invest more in personal counseling, mentoring, coaching and professional development. Training managers more in psychology to improve their mentoring and coaching can help. Adding talent to the HR team with training in individual counseling who can enrich the programs for OD and career development can enrich outcomes.

Managers will find they can count on a reliable team for the long term when they conscientiously work on fundamentals that keep people motivated, excited to learn and grow and feel valued and among friends will find they can count on a reliable team for the long-term.

Donna Hamlin

Dr. Donna Hamlin is a Consultants Collective member consultant and CEO of BoardWise. Donna has 30 years of corporate, governance and strategy consulting experience. She has a successful track record in human performance management and strategy change management and has served clients from start-ups to Fortune 500 global enterprises in more than 30 countries. As CEO of BoardWise, she oversee the organization's global programs, including its centers and their services. These include: board evaluations, professional certification and training, its global registry of qualified directors, Board Bona Fide®, its strategic partnership programs and its BoardWise center. She is certified for governance by the National Association of Corporate Directors in the U.S. and in global governance by Harvard University. Donna holds Ph.D. and M.S. degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a B.A. degree from Siena College and has studied at the University of London. A published author, she writes management articles in the area of strategy, brand value management, change and human performance management. She holds various board directorships.

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