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9 December 2021

Don’t Oversimplify the Great Resignation

Written by
Nicolai Tillisch

Who would have guessed eighteen months ago that resignations would become a bigger threat to corporations than a recession? With a reference to the 1930s’ Great Depression, we are now said to be in the “Great Resignation”. The fear of losing the best people is keeping business leaders awake at night. Resignations can be costly and cause setbacks, and it’s human nature to value what we have even more when there is a material risk of losing it. Among the various ways that corporate executives can think about tackling this issue, some are more sustainable than others.

An evolving story

The Great Resignation is a complex phenomenon that currently evolves. There is a range of root causes simultaneously at play, and we will not understand their most significant patterns until the future. Bad work experiences during the pandemic is one cause and has motivated many to consider new jobs. While some industries, especially technology, are booming and attracting people from elsewhere, other industries face continuous uncertainties, making even those talents with the best prospects look outward. Also, people turnover gets higher closer to the top of an economic cycle. Further, the big baby boomer generation is now in the midst of retiring.

And, as I will focus on here, people are unavoidably reconsidering their lives after having had eye-opening experiences over the past two years from fear of the virus, concerns about the safety of their families, the disruptions of lockdowns, working from home, social distancing, and frequently changing restrictions. The hamster wheel did momentarily get blocked and kept grinding, turning normality upside down.

It’s noteworthy that life before the pandemic was far from perfect for many movers and shakers in corporations. Nicolai Chen Nielsen and I found that 59 percent of ambitious people admitted struggling to find a balance in their life. Even more striking, 43 percent doubted whether their ambitious efforts would ever pay off. That’s almost like going to a casino and, in one go, putting decades of hard work on red at the roulette table.

It’s clearly relevant for many to consider their life: What truly matters to me? How can I live the life to which I aspire?

The swinging pendulum

There are different schools of thought on how to answer such questions. The answer at one extreme implies choosing a much simpler, more mindful life. This may typically be guided by a soft, emphatic voice of a calm, caring person who is well into life. At the opposing extreme, it may sound like a passionate, assertive sports coach shouting that momentary setbacks shouldn’t distract you from the opportunity to gain much more.

Each extreme attracts, and we typically feel more at home at one of the two ends than at the other. An interesting development now is that corporations, which historically have placed almost all their weight on the pedal-to-the-metal side, have become much more active on the foot-off-the-metal side. This trend is manifested in the widespread popularity of meditation in Silicon Valley and in big corporate initiatives focused on mindfulness, various aspects of well-being, and more flexible work conditions. These activities are driven by everything from the passionate conviction of enlightened executive teams to nervousness about the latest appalling employee engagement surveys or the escalating exodus of talent.

Desperation, though, seldom fosters sustainable long-term solutions. Meanwhile, one certainty is that when a pendulum swings, as it seems to do within management fashion, eventually the pendulum will swing back again. It might take years, during which new potential might have been harnessed but some old benefits may have been missed.

A middle way

Where would the world be right now if people like Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci had decided to take their feet off the pedal? They might have had good reason to do so too after the first 5–10 intense years with their biotech startup, BioNTech, founded in 2008, but they persevered. And it is lucky for the world they did, as the married couple are the pioneers of what is now known as Pfizer’s Covid vaccine. They may be modest people – they even celebrated the successful clinical trial confirming their scientific breakthrough by drinking tea together at home – but their entrepreneurship is critical in curbing the pandemic.

They are great examples that clarity and strong personal values can go hand in hand with risk-taking and self-discipline. Actually, this is common among people who are consistently successful over time. Nicolai and I found in our studies that high levels of well-being, growth, and achievement are mutually self-enforcing. Ambitious people who thrive over time tend to continuously nurture all three elements in their life; while people who instead compromise on any of them will likely struggle with the two others after a while. For example, you can work tremendously hard and achieve success in challenging circumstances and still have a high level of well-being, but the moment you stop growing the risk of burnout goes up considerably. It’s therefore important to pay attention to all three elements – well-being, growth, and achievement – or expect soon to struggle with each of them.

One implication of this finding is that there is no quick fix to creating a more meaningful life. While we can relatively easily find out what’s meaningful to us, it’s the way we live our life that makes it meaningful. Corporations can, certainly, support their ambitious employees in navigating this but must respect that this is not only about work itself. It is about life in general, and people are very different in that regard. It takes no more than a few ideas and tools to help people reflect and gain new insights into their life, but their daily work environment – with all its many facets – will influence how they end up living.

Nicolai Tillisch is a colleague at Cultivating Leadership and has co-authored, with Nicolai Chen Nielsen, Return on Ambition: A Radical Approach to Your Achievement, Growth, and Well-Being. Fast Company Press released this bestselling book in 2021, where it was among the five finalists for the getAbstract International Book Award.

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