What the Great Resignation really says about leadership

HR leader, confident female business leader

According to a recent Randstad survey, nearly 25% of employees in the UK are planning to change jobs in the next few months.  Meanwhile, in the US, 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September — an unprecedented number.

COVID-19’s consequences—lockdowns, Zoom fatigue, government wage support, wage inflation, a dearth of migrant workers, and even ‘too much’ time to reassess life’s purpose—are frequently blamed for making it harder for leaders to keep good people.

But COVID-19 is merely a catalyst:  To understand the root cause, leaders should spend more time looking in the mirror.

Why are people leaving?  Because their leaders have failed to engage them emotionally.

Over the past twenty years, through CEO and senior executive roles covering Australia, the UK, the US, and Asia, I’ve studied and applied the practices that high performing leaders use to build and sustain high engagement in organisations both large and small.

My conclusion—described in my new book, The Leadership Star:  A Practical Guide to Building Engagement—is that there are five things that leaders need to do—consistently—to build a culture that engages people emotionally.  And when people chose to leave, that’s the definition of not being engaged.

So where are leaders falling short?  And more importantly, what can they do about it?  Let’s look at this through the lens of what I call the “5 Cs” of Leadership.

The first ‘C’ is Care.  Do you care about your employees?  Most leaders, I’m sure, would say yes.  But Care is an action verb.  And employees need to feel cared for as individual human beings, not just a disposable “human resource”.  In normal times, and in an in-person environment, it’s relatively easy to demonstrate that human warmth and connection.  But in a period of crisis, people’s needs shift down Maslow’s hierarchy, focusing more on safety and security of themselves and their families.  Remote working compounds this, as many people feel more isolated. 

The key for leaders is to connect with each employee individually—ideally in person or by phone (which I find permits better emotional connection than Zoom)— to understand and support their particular situation, challenges, and career ambitions.  When people feel their direct leader cares about them personally, they are far less likely to leave.

The second C is Context:  Do employees understand the “why” of the organisation—why it exists, and how it contributes beyond making a profit?  Do they know how what they do all day contributes to that purpose?  Do they understand the organisation’s priorities, and choices?

When people find meaning in their daily work, they are much less likely to go searching elsewhere.  It’s the job of the leader to communicate why the work that each person does matters—this is especially true for people who are working from home, or not directly exposed to the output and impact that the organisation is making.

The third C is Clarity:  Do people know what their job is?  What results are expected of them, and what behaviour is acceptable (and not)?   Without the day-to-day reinforcement of working in a team environment, having a leader nearby to provide stretching goals and informal mentoring, many employees can easily begin to drift, finding it harder to stay intrinsically motivated. 

The fourth C is Clearing the Way:  What barriers to success are people facing?  And what are leaders doing about it?  Resource constraints, technology limitations, ever-changing government rules & regulations, difficulty in accessing training, the challenge of building and navigating relationships among a remote workforce—all of these can make it harder for people to achieve.  It’s up to leaders to be proactive in identifying these barriers, and finding ways to knock them over, so that people feel genuinely supported in a challenging and stressful environment.

The final C is Celebrate:  Highly engaging leaders create a culture of appreciation that creates a positive spiral between achievement and emotional satisfaction.  This is about much more than annual bonus & pay cycles, and the occasional “Zoom drinks” event.   Rather, it’s about timely and tailored recognition that genuinely acknowledges the specific effort and impact that individuals have had—making them feel personally valued and reinforcing that their work has meaning.

While it’s true that none of the above is rocket science, it’s also true that many leaders who understand these principles intuitively fall short when it comes to putting them into action, consistently.  Building and maintaining engagement—especially during times of crisis—requires consistency and discipline, across each of the 5 C’s.

Do employees feel cared about as individual human beings? Do they find meaning in the organisation’s purpose, and see how their work contributes to that purpose? Are they clear on what’s expected of them?  Do they feel supported and safe?  Are their contributions acknowledged in a heart-felt way?

Leaders who can answer “Yes” to the above have little to fear from The Great Resignation.

Brian HartzerAbout the author

Brian Hartzer is a world-leading executive, leadership mentor and investor with more than 25 years’ experience in senior executive roles at major banks in Australia and the UK. These roles included CEO at Westpac and divisional chief executive roles at the Royal Bank of Scotland Group—including CEO of Coutts—and ANZ Banking Group. Brian has also served as Chairman of the Australian Banking Association and of the Retail Banking Committee of the British Bankers Association. He is also the author of The Leadership Star: A Practical Guide to Building Engagement (Wiley). Available now priced £15.50. 

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