Hardly a day goes by without an article appearing about “The Great Resignation.” In today’s episode, Bridgette and Irvine explore this phenomenon that is re-shaping the workplace and discuss what we can do to address discontent – either in ourselves or in our workplace.
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Bridgette: Welcome everybody to the Resilient Leadership podcast. I’m Bridgette Theurer and I am joined by my trustee co-host Irvine Nugent. How you doing today Irvine?
Irvine: I am doing fantastic, Bridget. Thank you. How about yourself?
Bridgette: I’m doing very, very well. Boy, do we have an interesting topic on tap for today; a phrase that has become a bit of a buzzword of “the great resignation”. We’re going to talk about that, what’s behind it, and what employers can do or what leaders can do about it. And if you are thinking about resigning, because maybe you are, what you might do to make sure that you think your way through that and not just react. So that’s, what’s on tap for today. So Irvine, what can you share with us to kind of set the stage, set the context a little bit?
Irvine: Well, you know, I think it’s important to put the context here is critically important and we are 19 months in, into a pandemic now, which has fundamentally for many people changed the way they work. And I think that’s very important to put front and center. So for example, here’s a statistic, 6% of the US population pre pandemic worked virtually and now that is 33% or even higher, so that’s a huge change in behavior. Yeah, absolutely. We’re in the midst of something that I think we could call a great revolution. We’re in the midst of something, something is changing and I think we’re struggling to define it, but it is happening. Just this week I had two emails, one was from our, our 401k manager to say, I’m out of here and there’ll be a new person taking over. And then three minutes later, I got an email from an association, the National Speakers Association that the virtual assistant was leaving. So, we are getting these emails, this trend is happening.
Bridgette: It’s a seismic change.
Irvine: Absolutely. I love that word. Yeah, seismic. And then just one other statistic, which I think is really incredible; in July of 2021, 3 million people left their jobs and in August 4 million people. So this is extraordinary because even for people who look at these statistics, they’re saying this has never happened before. So maybe a great open question therefore Bridgette, might be, what do you think some of the key reasons? You know, as you listen to leaders, as you look at what’s happening, why do you think employees are leaving in such large numbers?
Bridgette: Yeah, well, when we entered into this once in a generation event called the pandemic and we started work virtually, and for some people, not all, but for some people that was like hitting the pause button and they were able to kind of stop and survey and check in and look around and say, do I really want to keep doing this? How much am I really getting from this contract that I have with my employer? Or, you know, is this really leading me where I want to go? I mean, people just started checking in with themselves and asking questions because let’s face it, the pandemic also put front and center our mortality, and we as human beings, like to not think about that. But it was hard not to, when, at least in the early stages of the pandemic, you never knew if you were going to get it. And if you got it, chances were, you were going to be okay, but you didn’t really know.
So, we started asking some big questions and in asking those questions, we might have sort of looked at, hmm? One of the things we might have noticed is I’m not really respected or valued here. I don’t really feel like my expertise, my voice is valued, and that’s a hard thing to swallow. In looking we might have noticed that we’re kind of stagnant. We haven’t really been growing for a while and we want to grow. I think another reason is burnout. I mean, we talked about that in the last episode. If we’ve just been at that place of burnout, we might go, “Well, there’s other jobs out there I am done with this. I am so tired. I’m so exhausted. I cannot see my way through this. I’m out of here.”
I know. I think two other things that we’re seeing; that loss of passion and purpose, or maybe you never had it, like you fell into the work, and truth be told it’s not really something that excites you. And so, this is your opportunity to see if you can find something that does. And then the last one, and this is something that really comes from the work of David Rock at the NeuroLeadership Institute, which is looking at employee sense of choice. Do they feel like they exercise choice in their day, in their week in their careers? Because if not, that’s a big deal. Do you love the idea of not being at choice in your work day? No. And nobody does. And there’s a whole… like, there’s a lot of neuroscience behind that, but Irvine, why don’t you speak to that? What’s going on around choice in our brains.
Irvine: Yeah. It’s really interesting. So, you know what they’ve discovered, which is fascinating is that when we are in choice, when we have the power to make and to choose different options, the part in our brain, the reward part in our brain gets lit up. And so, it say pleasant experience. We experience it as something positive, as rewarding. And importantly here, the reverse is true. So when you take away choice, when you feel you are trapped, when you feel there is no choice, the brain interprets that as threat. So just think about that for a moment, you know, reward and threat. So pre-pandemic on an average day, I could wake up and I could think about, you know, where would I go for lunch today? Where will I get my coffee? And then, I’m a traveler, so my daydreaming parts of the day would, where do I want to go next, and all these. So just think of things that we just take for granted are choices that we used to make.
Now forward to today, and we have just lived through or living through it’s still ongoing where so many choices were taken away from us. So in other words, the choice of where did I want to eat? There still is an amazing restaurant in Gaithersburg. It’s my favorite to go to at Thai restaurant, which is still not… you can’t go there and dine in anymore.
Bridgette: Oh really?
Irvine: Yeah. That Thai, yeah. That is being taken away, travel. So in other words, you know, I’m supposed to have an engagement with a colleague of mine in the UK, and we don’t know, it’s up in the air; that has been taken away. And then just in the offices, you know, this big debate, do we go into the office? Do we not go into the office? And then we’re not able to get into the office. Now for some people that has been fantastic, yay, I’m able to stay at home. But for other people it’s like, no, no, no, I need the connection. I need the camaraderie. I need the team work. So all of those things have been taken away and it’s had an impact. It’s really had a huge impact.
Bridgette: And I love the way you said how threatening it is to the brain, that when we have less choice, we feel more threatened and that’s all about anxiety. And so, then what happens is we may exercise choice by resigning. It feels like I can’t choose all these other things, but you know what I will do, I’ll choose whether I want to work here or not, everyone resign. The question is, are we resigning reactively out of a highly anxious place? Or are we really thinking our way through that? And so for our listeners, that’s a question to be in, if you’re thinking about resigning, or if you have people coming to you who are thinking about resigning, is can you help them step back from the anxious response, the threat response, and think about, what is it that they really want and what is the best way for them to discover it.
So as a leader then, one of the things we can do is if choice is being curtailed is a big threat and a big reason why people are leaving, how can we give people more choices? and there are some simple ways that we can do that. Like, I’m thinking of one client that I worked with, where they were deciding about, you know, do we come back to the office? When do we come back and all that? And they landed on the choice of a hybrid, which I know a lot of companies have where three days a week, you know, people were kind of expected to come in, but they could pick which days. Huge. Because again, we’re going to be choosing a hybrid, but you get to choose which days. And just things like what kind of work assignments you’re on, who you work with, where you work, how you work, all those kinds of things.
I would invite anybody listening to this that’s a leader of a team of an organization of a business to ask yourself, where do our employees really have a choice and how can we give them even more choice and more say in their day, in their week in their lives, because it’s going to make a huge difference.
Bridgette: So that’s one reason why people are leaving among others that we discuss. And that’s one way leaders can stem the tide, right. Is looking at little ways to give people choice. Oh, wait, Irvine, I’m going to ask you like what else we can do, but I just thought of something I really want to share with our listeners. And again, I heard this from David Rock when he was sharing the neuroscience around choice and you know what he said, he said there was a one study that was done in nursing homes and on two different floors. On one floor, they instituted more choices for the residents, a lot more about what furniture they could have in their rooms, what meals they could eat, when they ate – a bunch of them. And the other floor was the same, which was not a lot of choices. And do you know what the difference was, the impact? Death rate.
Irvine: Oh, interesting.
Bridgette: The residents who had more choices introduced to them live longer. If that’s not enough to wake us up, I mean, that’s just goes to show the impact on human beings. So what else can leaders do Irvine to stem the tide of this great resignation? What do you think will help?
Irvine: Well, I mean, I have a few thoughts about this. One is I think at times we’re dealing with a phenomena that we don’t fully understand, and I think that’s okay to know that this is, and I think therefore leaders need to, first of all, listen deeply. They have to really listen to the voices and take time to listen to what’s going on in the experience of their employees. Because what I have found is that that difference, and we can jump to assumptions. So say for example, two people can have experience on the face of it, very similar experiences of COVID. They can be in an apartment that’s the same and they can have the same makeup of a family, but their experience was highly different. And so, I think listening to that experience is very important because very often why we think people are resigning may not be the real reason why they are resigning.
Bridgette: That’s true.
Irvine: That is true. And I remember, you know, some of the research now coming out, it’s really interesting that I’ve heard a lot of people, well, people just they need more work life balance, and that’s the real reason they’re resigning. And actually, when we’re looking at some surveys, one of the things that’s coming to the top is something you mentioned right at the beginning of the episode, feeling valued. Yeah. Do I feel valued in my organization? Do I feel valued by my boss? Do I feel valued by the teammates and the peers that I work with? Because if this is really something that’s at our core, it’s like what’s my purpose then that of course is, is, is answered with a value question, I view valued. People find it much harder to leave relationships.
I can leave a job. I can leave activities. I can leave stuff that I hate. But I’m finding it hard to leave deep relationships that have meaning and provide meaning me. So I think one of the things that leaders can do is, and this is the challenge. The challenge is because in a virtual world, that’s a little more difficult. How do we create connection? And are we giving people time to create connection? And I think that’s a really important question for leaders. And as people begin to return to work, that common thread of feeling valued and creating connection is there. So, I think that’s incredibly important.
Bridgette: And you know what you just said, provoked this thought for me. We can be in a place where we don’t feel valued or appreciate it or respect it from our colleagues, from our boss, whatever. But what I would invite folks to think about, if that’s true for you, you know, for those who are listening is, right now, do you show up as a person who truly values yourself? Like, do you show up in meetings and conversations with the attitude of like, “Hey, I got a voice, I got a lot to offer here. I got a lot to bring to the table.” And you don’t wait for permission and you don’t wait for others to value you to do that because you value you. I think it’s equally important too that there’s another side of that, another side of that equation. But anyways, keep going. So that…
Irvine: One other thing I’ll mention in this is, I don’t know if you found it as well, I find that some leaders have said, you know, I’m walking on eggshells because I’m afraid that people are going to resign; I feel I can say anything. And I think what we’re confusing here is we want to be empathetic. So we want to listen, we want to understand people’s experiences, but at the same time, we also want to keep challenging people because importantly that’s as well another sustaining thing for people that they feel that they’re being challenged, they feel that they’re being challenged to grow. And part of that experience that this work is valuable because it’s helping me grow. And I’m finding leaders are confusing that, and actually, we’re going to talk about this in much deeper way in an episode, an upcoming episode, which we’ll call the Policy of Empathy, but just, you know, empathy is not just about giving in,, empathy is about truly understanding. And at the same time, continue to hold people accountable and challenging people to grow throughout this experience.
Bridgette: And not to be afraid to do it, even though we’re in the midst of the great resignation. Because there’s got to be the balance there of listening and caring with accountability. So that’s another place for our listeners to kind of check in with themselves. How well are you striking that balance?
Irvine: Yeah. You mentioned something which I’m curious, I want to explore it a little bit more. It was a little gem. You talked about how there’s a difference between resignation and acceptance. I want to explore that a little bit more. So for you, what do you see as the main difference between both of those things?
Bridgette: So resignation can be an action, right, like I resign, like, we’re talking about the great resignation, but it’s also a mood. It can settle in. Moods and emotions are a little bit different and a mood is something that’s sort of more like the climate rather than the weather; it sort of settles in. And so the mood of resignation can be something all of us can fall into. And it’s a mood that has this narrative inside our head; “Why bother because nothing’s going to change around here. I mean, it doesn’t matter what I do, nothing’s going to happen.” We might have good reason to say that and to think that, but that mood, if it stays with us too long limits our, what we see as even possible. So might be possibilities for action on our part or conversations, but we don’t see them because why bother.
And above resignation in terms of the kind of energy that we get is the mood of acceptance. It’s a notch above that because with accepting, we see, okay, there are some things around here. I don’t like, there’s some things I may not be able to change. I’m not going to keep fighting those or resisting what is, I accept those, and I’m going to still look for places where I can take action. And man, energetically, those are two different places to live and lead out of. So, that’s another place for us to look. If we’re going to resign, it’s better to resign from a place of acceptance than from a place of resignation. And if we’re going to lead, oh my goodness, yes, we have to lead from a place of acceptance and optimism and so forth. Every human being, every person can fall into from time to time, a place of resignation. And it’s just that we have to catch our ourselves and lift ourselves out of it. Don’t we?
Irvine: Yeah. For me, kind of the words that come to mind is this feeling of the difference between empowered and disempowered.
Bridgette: That’s it.
Irvine: Yeah. So this feeling of this resignation is this loss of power and, and just that, and it just spirals it spirals, downwards where there’s an acceptance that, yes, okay, I may not have power over everything, but there are things that I still have power over and I’m going to exercise that. And as you say, there’s kind of an energy with that, that’s just the seeds. It’s almost planting the seeds of new growth. And the ability to accept the fact that yes, the world has changed. And actually, I need to grieve over some of the losses that I have lost things and that’s important. However, with any loss there comes opportunity, and with any loss, there is new growth. And so what is the new growth in the midst of this loss?
Bridgette: Yeah, I love that question. I think that to really the, the practice that I would leave with folks is just to be in that question, what mood am I living and leading out of, because we’re always leading out of some mood and to also look at the organization and what’s the mood of the organization right now, where can we detect pockets of resignation either in ourselves or others, and what can we do as leaders to empower people so that they can see possibilities instead of just resignation? I think that’s such important work. What do you think?
Irvine: I really think so as well. I think at times that… the troubling thing about moods is that at times we, they come and we think, “How did I get in this mood?” And it’s like, and we can let the mood just dominate us. And at times, just to be able to, just to put your hand on the pulse of that and to really just ask some really thoughtful questions is really critically important.
Bridgette: Yeah. And we’re going to actually be talking about that. I I’m just literally remembering now that one of our future episodes is going to be about emotional contagion.
Irvine: Absolutely, yes. How we literally talk about pandemic, how we catch the moods and the emotions of other people. Well, I know about you but this has been a fascinating conversation. It’s an ongoing conversation. This is happening right as we speak, and we’re beginning to scratch the surface and understand what is going on here. But hopefully some of the thoughts that we put together today have been thought provoking for you of really asking some questions, why are people resigning? Of looking from a leader’s perspective, what are some things? And I thin choice is a huge, a huge thing that we could absolutely implement in our lives. I love what we talked about, about this difference between resignation and acceptance and then just taking time to check in with yourself and monitor your mood. So in our next episode, we’re going to look at emotional contagion, explore that a little further. Bridgette, thank you so much for everything today. Remember everyone, if you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, subscribe and also spread the word. It’s a new podcast and we’d love for you to tell others about it. Until we meet next, we wish you well, and hopefully you take a little time to monitor your mood in the coming days.
Bridgette: All right folks, take care of yourselves. Irvine, great being with you.
Irvine: Likewise, Bridgette. Thank you.
Bridgette: Bye bye.