The Great Resignation Is a Wake-Up Call for Leaders

July 21, 2021
By John Onoda
Cartoon of a man leaping towards an exit door, briefcase in hand, tie flying back.

Actions speak louder than words. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American workers are resigning at the highest recorded rates since 2001, when data collection of this type was initiated.

Moreover, some surveys are finding that as many as 40 to 95 percent of all workers are thinking about quitting their jobs. While many will ultimately decide to remain with their current employer, there is no indication that the trend has yet run its course. It is possible that millions of people will turn in their resignations over the coming months.

Reportedly, some leaders do not believe this is a matter of significance; they think it’s an anomaly related to the pandemic. It’s a possibility, but is there any downside to assuming that it is a serious matter worthy of attention and concern? After all, turnover reduces efficiency, disrupts teamwork and imposes replacement costs. For most organizations, it presents a tangible downside and little upside.

Leaders must take proactive steps now to acknowledge and address this reality, and, to the extent possible, mitigate human capital losses.


Workers weigh their options

There are many theories regarding why workers are resigning at record rates. Some portion of “The Great Resignation” is simply a matter of people not making the move while the coronavirus injected a high degree of uncertainty into everyone’s life. Now that things are returning to normal, those who have been waiting to move on are moving on.

Some workers are unwilling to be in places where they are certain to encounter unvaccinated people. Others now realize remote work is possible and won’t spend hours commuting when there is a viable alternative, perhaps in a lower-cost market. Also, sheltering throughout the pandemic gave people time to reassess their lives with a new appreciation of their own mortality and the importance of fulfillment. They won’t stay with an employer who can’t provide some meaning to their work or who makes them feel unvalued.

Leaders interested in minimizing turnover have little ability to address all of these factors. However, there are several that merit an investment of their time and attention – the quality of management, culture and purpose.


"Leaders must take proactive steps now to acknowledge and address this reality, and, to the extent possible, mitigate human capital losses."


Management, culture, and purpose

People flee toxic cultures. Some leaders are unaware or indifferent to the kind of culture experienced by workers in all parts of their organization. These leaders mistakenly assume that since their own relationships are collegial, the same is true for all employees. Sometimes, they are misled by internal surveys, which often fail to detect workplace toxicity. They are well-advised to check out social media platforms like Glassdoor, which can sometimes provide a truer sense of what workers are really feeling and thinking.

Even in well-regarded organizations, management skills are often weak because promotions have been based on the technical skills or marketing ability of individuals who are asked to oversee teams without being properly trained. Especially in the current circumstances where employees are working in new ways, often with new constraints, weak management will alienate and demoralize workers who will head for the doors.

Besides an assessment of management skills at all levels of an organization, leaders would be well advised to see if their workplace culture is robust enough to attract and retain talent. Does it generate trust among individuals and teams? Does everyone feel respected and valued? Is communication open and honest?

These values sound basic but many leaders would be surprised by how rare it is to find a business with consistently high ratings for its culture. Just as society is more diverse, demanding and impatient than ever before, so too are workforces. Unifying and satisfying employees is a much greater challenge today than it was just a couple of years ago, which is why some leaders are working to use purpose as a tool for alignment.

More than the common corporate guideposts – Vision, Mission, and Values – purpose addresses why people work. It encompasses a societal mission as well as a business objective, and at least implicitly offers a reason why people should derive satisfaction from work well done.


Final thoughts

The great resignation will have a profound impact on the landscape of the American workforce. How and to what extent it disrupts any individual organization may depend on how leaders rise to meet this moment and how they make actionable well thought out visions for management, culture, and purpose.