The Great Resignation and the Search for Purpose

by Didier Marlier on Friday December 17th, 2021

In case you haven’t heard from it yet, I can’t let you finish the year without knowing of the latest buzzword “à la mode”: The Great Resignation (i.e. giving-up my job).

So what is “The Great Resignation” phenomenon?

  • In the USA and UK, an abnormally high number of employees started to leave their job (2nd term 2021 and growing)
  • Those people (following an HBR article from Ian Cook) are mainly a) between 30 and 45 years old, b) coming from the tech and healthcare domains.

An interesting article from Adam Bryant in Strategy and Business suggests that people leaving in troves are an indication that, after risking their lives to sustain the population in those two years (and going) of pandemic, those people are searching now for meaning: Why do we do all this?

An article in the Economist, “How to Manage the Great Resignation” (November 29th 2021) also suggests that “workers in search of higher purpose will choose a new employer carefully and stay longer.”

But, although those articles come from respectable sources, they left me with a sense of “looking forward with my eyes riveted on the rear mirror”:

  • The Economist recommends to gauge (systematically…) the retention risk, “pull different levers to retain different types of people” and, finally “plan for how to find new workers”… How sexy and not really purpose related!
  • HBR (any surprise?), suggests to quantify the problem (through an interesting mathematical formula), identify the root cause and develop tailored retention programs. In the 90’s, this is roughly how Kepner Tregoe was advising to solve problems in manufacturing sites…
  • Strategy & Business proposes to come up with a meaningful purpose statement…

In 2020, we were closing our webinars (about successful “Corona Leaders”) with a warning: Covid may just be the first of many other tidal waves. And amongst those, we had identified that those to whom we owed our comfort and survival during the crisis (medical, food, supply chain, police, technology etc.) would soon question where truly laid the value added of their profession when compared to others who were nowhere to be seen, nor adding community value during the pandemic.

Already in 1996, the observer of the Animal Reign, Professor and Management Consultant, Meg Wheatley, was explaining that self-organized and motivated organisations had three fundamental things in common:

  • A meaningful, lived and shared purpose
  • A permanent feedback culture enabling participants to understand where they are positioned in relation to this purpose
  • A relational culture that would diminish politics, misunderstanding, rivalries etc.

Searching the recent literature, to prepare this article, I fell back on a blog of mine, written in May 2019 (before the pandemic started). My attention had been drawn by an article of Cassie Werber “The key to loving your job in the age of burnout” published in Quartz at Work.

Cassie mentions the research of two Academics, J. Stuart Bunderson and Jeffery A. Thompson trying to understand what kept people remarkably motivated in doing dirty and underpaid jobs. They focused on zoo and aquarium keepers. The result, she says, showed that “the keepers gained a deep sense of meaning from their jobs. It didn’t matter that caring for animals was extremely badly paid and offered little career advancement, or that many of the actual tasks involved could be classified as “dirty work” -cleaning up feces, chopping vegetables, scrubbing floors-, the zookeepers, most of whom were highly educated, felt that they were fulfilling a calling, and in doing so were extremely dedicated, often volunteering for months before even beginning to be paid, and rarely quitting.”

In the same article, Insead faculty and psychiatrist Gianpiero Petriglieri explains: “In modern times, our sense of self was primarily tied to two behemoths: The nation state, on the one hand, and the company, on the other. But both of these allegiances are fading. More and more, our sense of self is connected to the kind of person we believe ourselves to be—a combination of profession and meaning.”

Professor Petriglieri explains further “At the forefront of this story is a group of people who see neither the organization, nor the nation state, nor the company as organizers of identity…They’re very nomadic, they have very loose affiliations to institutions but very deep personal connections to their work!” He calls those people ”Professional Nomads”. Finally, putting the record straight, he claims that, if it is fundamental to give meaning to our work, we shouldn’t expect anybody else to do it for us: This is our duty as worker, manager, leader and, would I add, as wife, husband, mother and father (as we bring our work frustration and dissatisfaction home!)

So, why is Meaning so important to work? Remember the metaphor of the stone carvers and cathedral builders. The story tells of a noble man, in the Middle Age, walking across the busy site where a cathedral was being erected. He notices a bunch of people carving stones. Their energy is low, they work mechanically, without looking at each other and their body posture betrays boredom and servility. He asks them what they do and they reply, without surprise, “We are carving stones my Lord”. Little after he comes across another team, doing exactly the same work and what strikes him is their energy, the fact they clearly work , learn, suffer and succeed together as a team. There is joy and laughter. Curious to understand why such a difference, he asks them the same question and, with passion and fire in their eyes, they respond “My Lord we are building a cathedral!!!” Are your people stone carvers or a cathedral builders?

Did these builders have an engaging leader, one that provided them with tips, exemplarity, moving stories and an engaging Purpose, or did they create their Purpose by themselves? I guess both are fundamental into creating this Chemistry.

To leave you with a moving reminder of what Purpose can be, here is a short clip of the closing of one of my favourite movies, Million Dollar Baby: People die every day, mopping floor, washing dishes…You know what their last thought is? I didn’t get my shot”…

Let us create ours and provide conditions for our people to do so!

Enjoy your Leadership Journey!

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6 Responses to “The Great Resignation and the Search for Purpose”

  1. Good to hear from you again!

    I certainly have seen what you described. But more often than not, not because employees want to be digital nomads or have no sense of purpose.
    If I look at myself – and belonging to the ones who have a desk job: I love what I do. Now: I have never worked as much, seen almost no people of flesh and bones, lost relatives and friends to the pandemic, cooked as poorly and my house is a mess. I am not tired of my job – I am just tired. I can only imagine how tired people are who are homeschooling kids or taking care of parents as well… That forces to make choices that could become permanent, but might be intended to be temporary…

    Reply
    • Thank you, dear Ingrid…

      I fully support (as I experience the same for myself;). Thank you for putting my article in perspective! I wish you a peaceful transition towards a better 2022.

      Reply
  2. Thank you Didier for this blog

    The current time is taking a lot from me a as leader. Not only in this role at the job but also at home, where in our days as obviously privacy and work is even more mixing up.

    It is a high challenge for a company to at one hand create a framework where the meaning of the company and work is putted right and at the other side every individual see’s and find’s the purpose. Is this achievable? I think not. As the framework must be made up by the company and with all leaders with showing a direction and defining principles how we work. At the other side, I think every individual must define what the purpose is and if this meaning/purpose is also fitting it with the company.
    To in our days in western world more and more educated people giving freedom is a key fundemental. And with freedom, responsibility is also given.
    Companies must apply simple and clear frameworks, continously allow clear and strict feedback to improve individually but also in teams to do most important. Build trust individually but also in the company.
    With trust everything starts.

    The difficutly of leaders in our days is that we too strongly tie up our energy into managerial work and undervalue the power of defining and building up these principles and framework in the job but even more individually. You have to start by yourself.

    Thank you for the great and inspiring article!

    Reply
    • Such a masterpiece! Thank you, dear Tom.

      I choose to read your post as an illustration of what is expected from future, disruptive leaders (the book Nick McRoberts and I work upon): On the one hand,the leadership needs to be clear on where it proposes to take the company and be a spectacular personification of this (the good, old “walk the talk”) and be clear that this may not be fit for everyone. Then,as you clearly express, it is up to each one of us to see whether or not we feel that we can flourish in this frame of values and strategic intent or not.

      I wish you a peaceful transition and hope 2022 will bring some happy moments!

      Reply
  3. I have jumped on the bandwagon to be part of the “Great Resignation.””
    I work at a large global company, I have put in many hours of sweat and tears to ensure that it is successful. 2019 was tough as I had to furlough members of my team. 2022 I saw members of my team leave as the company was not loyal to them in 2019 so they jumped. As a team leader, I filled many gaps. This year was crazy and the hours long. I had always loved my job. But it is to the point that it is unsustainable. Words from upper management are not sufficient to make me feel that my current role has any meaning but to hit their goals. So, I have given my notice. I plan to work on things that will satisfy my soul not fill my wallet. Life is short.

    Reply
    • Thank you,dear Karen,for sharing the voice of those I was writing about, on the article. I wish I had known you before I wrote it and couldn’t have found a better illustration than what you, sadly, went through.

      I trust that, no matter how challenging, your decision soon will feel to be the right one. All my wishes for a happier and more fulfilling 2022

      Reply

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