January 2022 | 

The Great Resignation: Leaders, It’s Not Them — It’s You

Dealing with the Great Resignation: It’s Not Them, It’s You

Speculation about what’s behind the Great Resignation continues. Low wages, COVID-related health concerns and child- and family-care issues, and an existential consideration of what really matters have all been cited as contributing factors. But as the “Big Quit” continues, a leadership question is becoming more urgent: What to do? How do we retain the workers we have and fill our open positions?

When we put this question to Wharton’s faculty chair of the Advanced Management Program and director of Becoming a Leader of Leaders: Pathways to Success, Mike Useem turns first to philosopher Thomas Kuhn (specifically, Kuhn’s groundbreaking 1962 work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which introduced the term “paradigm shift”).

“Kuhn describes breakthrough discoveries in science that fundamentally changed the way we see the world,” says Useem. “Before 1905, for example, people looked at the universe through the eyes of Isaac Newton. Any evidence that seemed to contradict Newton, including what later became known as theory of relativity, was disregarded. Kuhn makes a compelling case that, even when it becomes frayed or unsubstantiated, we tend not to want to give up our model of the universe.”

Useem says it’s the same in the field of work. “Our model has been the 9 to 5 work day, punctuated at either end by a commute. That model was fundamentally upended as we went through an almost-forced experiment in March of 2020. We were given the opportunity to live otherwise, and the advantages of that otherwise are only becoming more compelling. That in turn has led us to question the model: Why come into the office today? Why is work so much of our identity? Why not live in Montana?”

“That experiment has led to the employee shortages, massive supply chain disruptions, and other downsides that we are seeing,” says Useem. In Kuhn’s words, the paradigm has shifted, and if we’re not willing to give it up, we risk even greater problems. “In my view, it means those responsible for getting the work done have to change,” says Useem. “Leadership has to look different.”

A Fundamental Leadership Change

Useem isn’t talking minor tweaks, such as figuring out who can continue to work remotely. The difference, he says, must be fundamental. “We have to reinvent our leadership methodology. We have to come to terms with the fact that we have to inspire, energize, direct, and instill purpose in people through means other than ‘Let’s have lunch or a drink after work.’ Much of that is not going to come back. But the need for effective leadership is more important than ever. Reinventing your leadership methodology means you have to come up with other methods of creating personal relationships and communicating your character and your agenda when you are no longer in the same room together.”

Rethinking the Workplace

Greg Shea, who teaches with Useem in Becoming a Leader of Leaders, says rethinking leadership must also include reimaging the ways we ask others to work. “There are a couple of things that are getting missed in discussions about the Great Resignation. First, this is a golden opportunity for organizations (I am working with a couple of them right now). After the ‘forced experiment’ of remote work, you have what may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reset and consider, well beyond the discussion of remote versus onsite work, how do we want to do our work?”

Shea’s model, which he lays out in the book Leading Successful Change (co-authored by Cassie Solomon, Wharton School Press, 2020) and in the Leading Organizational Change program, calls for a redesign of the work environment. “You need to start with a solid understanding of your flow of work, and then decide how you could better organize around it. This goes well beyond preferences for remote versus onsite. For projects that naturally create conflict, for example, it’s easier to work in person — not always, but rather during key junctures.”

Apply the Proven, Create the New

Second, says Shea, is the fact that in the U.S., a large percentage of those who left their jobs did so right before COVID-related federal unemployment benefits ended. “Clearly there are forces at work other than financial. People are expecting their leaders to handle things differently.” Shea has been studying New York fire fighters for the past five years and says the “crucial leadership challenge” post-9-11 has lessons for today’s leaders.

“Through my interviews with 9-11 first responders, I have seen the importance of leadership not just in getting through hard times, but also leading from those times to renewal.” He says leaders should consider where their organization is on this spectrum: acute event, trekking through (“head down, continuing to work”), and renewal (“made it through, so now what?”). “Right now, most companies are in the middle, with the exception of health care organizations still dealing with record numbers of very ill patients.”

“To lead people today,” says Shea, “it is necessary to understand that in all likelihood they are coming back changed. It’s going to take time to check in on where they’ve been and to recalibrate. You can’t just throw a switch to turn off the strong emotional and psychological component of the pandemic. Many people have experienced significant loss, and all have been stressed in a non-normal way. If you are going to lead, you have to connect to that experience. If you don’t, employees are going to find something new.”

Shea continues, “We have known for a long time that many people leave because of their supervisor, and yet we haven’t sorted out what that means in this rolling pandemic-induced world. The need to sort it out seems less often acknowledged than the dream of a return to December 2019. Supervisors can tune into the reengagement of people and help them reset. The problem is they don’t get much help in figuring out what that actually means. We haven’t been here before. Hence, we need to look with the freshest eyes that we can as we apply the proven and create the new. We need, in other words, to describe accurately just what we need to do. You have to name it before you work on it.”

New Leadership: A Work in Progress

Recalibrating, as Shea notes, is difficult to do on your own. Developing a new leadership model has to acknowledge our unique moment in history while drawing from what we know worked in the past. The Wharton leadership programs they lead, says Useem, have become “an incubator for the new leadership paradigm.” Participants come with their specific challenges — many of which they discover are shared — and work with faculty to start developing a picture of where they need to be headed.

“How exactly can we lead differently?” asks Useem. “Some of the answers are beginning to emerge. Paradigms don’t shift overnight. In a couple of years, I expect we will have a new paradigm that defines how and where we work and how we receive the message about how to get the job done.”