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A Playlist for The Great Resignation

In business growth consulting, suggesting that a client curates a playlist may sound unusual. But there’s nothing better than a mix tape to tell a story. It relies on understanding both emotion and relationship. For example: If “The Great Resignation” was a mix tape, mash up, or playlist takeover, what would it sound like? Through active listening, we might be less inclined to dismiss an emerging phenomenon as news hype and see that any business that doesn’t pay attention to what's in the queue, may end up singing the blues.

1. The Question: What’s Going On?

In executive coaching, framing the question or the topic is an essential starting place. There’s no better way to look at “The Great Resignation” or as Linked In prefers to call it, “The Great Reshuffle” than in the words of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”. The physical and social impacts of the last two years have been brutal. Workers have grappled with the pandemic, society calls for measurable accountability in our personal and professional commitment to end racism and restore justice, while the reality of war and autocratic power play out in the world in surreal technicolor.

“Mother, mother, there’s far too many of you crying.” According to multiple studies by Pew Research, workers and especially mothers with children under the age of 18 have been hit hard. One in five would prefer to work less, with a similar number wanting to work more but not having the flexibility to do so. Perhaps that is because much of the heavy lifting on the home front is still left to women and the conditions of the workplace aren’t changing fast enough to accommodate the realities of what life has asked from families. Households with two working parents were often balancing work-from-home protocols in the same time block as their children were expected to be online to access their schoolwork. And the single parent had an impossible task. Childcare was and continues to be sporadic with outbreaks sending care workers home and no vaccination solution approved for children under 5. If you’re a front-line worker, you still grapple with the ever-changing protocols and the moral guilt around the possibility of bringing home an illness that could compromise those you love. Is it really that surprising that workers are saying “enough” with their resignations? Add the fact that many adults are also caring for elderly parents and you have a perfect storm of conflicting priorities. The businesses and leaders that understand that this dynamic isn’t temporary and expectations are only met by moving forward. How can we make the nature of work flexible and inclusive?

“Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying.” Last week, psychologist Sherry Walling’s article in Fortune Magazine “How the Great Grief led to the Great Resignation” described the unspoken loss that the work environment pretended wasn’t there. Grief for losing loved ones to the pandemic, grief for the senseless killing of people of color that continues to escalate, grief for recognizing that time is short, and finally grief that compassion was missing from our leaders and workplaces. Walling sums it up with, “Our grief fueled great personal upheaval and pushed many of us to question how we spend our precious, finite time on earth, especially considering that about a third of it is spent at work.” Horror stories of people suffering great loss, yet that loss not being acknowledged as their employers asked employees to do more for the “good of the company” has had moral and/or value-driven consequences. How do we create acknowledgement as a leadership development competency?

2. The Sub-Theme: Boundary Road

A sub-theme here is that employees are setting boundaries. Queue up “Boundary Road” by All Our Exes Live in Texas. “There are too many folks who depend on me, and I can’t let go. What if I want to be the one to fall apart once in a while?” As the concept of respite is far from a norm in the workplace, employees may choose to leave rather than ask for space and time. The future of work will understand that the traumas aren’t going away anytime soon and have leaders brave enough to ask the question: How do we prioritize and practice empathy as an essential component of the work?

3. The Protaganist(s)/Leading Roles: People

It’s simple: at the core of "The Great Resignation" are people. Cue up Barbra Streisand’s signature song People. The opening stanza, “People. People who need people. Are the luckiest people in the world,” speaks to the shifting priorities that call for a more humane and people-first approach to work. Fortune Magazine featured Teuila Hanson, Chief People Officer at LinkedIn in an essay on what a human-centered people-first work culture could look like. It starts with sourcing what’s valued and important to your employees. The top-down approach only works once you understand what authentic acknowledgement looks and feels like, why autonomy drives productivity, and what behaviors a curious, source-driven leader should pay attention to. The Q12 survey that Gallup created (a favorite of mine) now stands as the leading validity-tested employee engagement tool with data from 2.7 million employees and over 100,000 teams and is all the more relevant in today’s environment. Low scoring organizations have 43% more turnover while high scoring organizations have 66% more employees who are thriving/doing well. People matter and how they are valued shouldn’t rely on luck. How are you shifting to be more people-oriented versus numbers-oriented?

4. The Problem/Conflict: If You Don’t Know Me by Now

Simply Red’s cover of “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” is for those employees that left the workplace not exhausted, but with conviction that they could do better. It’s a barbell trend representing two ends of the adult generational spectrum (Millennials and Baby Boomers). For many employers, this phenomenon represents the risk of losing key employees with critical expertise and historical perspective. Employers would like to believe that turnover numbers reflect an employee's personal lifestyle choice. Inevitable is a word often used to obfuscate the underlying reason. Many businesses are missing the shift, thinking that each turnover is personal or part of a mega-trend out of their control. As the song goes, “If you don’t know me by now, you will never, never, never know me.” The lack of autonomy, trust, and not letting ability/expertise drive decision-making has led to a record number of skill-based employees to leave. They can repurpose those skills in their own entrepreneurial enterprise where they are in sole control. Others are adopting the philosophies that Canadian Paul Jarvis clairvoyantly detailed in his book Company of One. Baby Boomers aren’t merely retiring, they are rewiring for balance, leveraging both talent and dollars in their own enterprise or investing in others. Millennials are doing the same, exchanging employment for leveraged income and rewarding work, free from suffocating protocols and corporate politics.

The truth is, employers who were used to having a never-ending pool of talent and believed that brand and pay rate was enough to manage the human churn are having a wake-up call. An insightful article by Ibrahim Hasan on the Shopify Blog wrote about the distinctions between anti-employment versus anti-work and how and why it is happening.

It’s a cautionary tale of mistaking silence for compliance or assuming employees that are uber-productive are happy. What are you doing to create an environment of entrepreneurship and autonomy in your own business?

5. The Driving Emotion: I Forgot That You Existed

Employers often overestimate the degree that employees need them. What will they do without the paycheck we offer? What about the mediocre healthcare we now make them pay for? Queue up Taylor Swift’s upbeat anthem, “I Forgot That You Existed.” Basically when it comes to break-ups, for employers, yes, it’s you. The line in the song, “I forgot that you existed. And I thought it would kill me, but it didn’t. And it was so nice. So, peaceful and quiet. . . It wasn’t love. It wasn’t hate. It’s just indifference.” Have you considered that “The Great Resignation” also has “The Great Indifference” going for it? Employers that are fickle, domineering, and think they hold all the power may not have recognized that the power shift has changed. “This level of quitting,” writes The Atlantic, “is really an expression of optimism that says, We can do better.” LinkedIn’s 2022 Global Talent Trends reported posts on work flexibility have grown by 343% since 2019. It’s no surprise that that there are now twice as many job offerings as applicants. Employees are finding a different way to work. Are you prepared as an employer to change? Are you prepared that your employees may be indifferent to your goals? Are you telling or asking what the future of your organization needs?

6. The Need/The Danger: Cry Me A River/Too Much, Too Little, Too Late

We couldn’t sing the blues without the help of Sam Cooke. His plaintive, yet “moving on” version of Cry Me a River says the future of work isn’t looking for apologies from employers. Employees have always moved on. If your organization has made mistakes and your commitment to change is real, remember that employees will look for tangible, authentic proof. “Now you say you’re lonely, you cried the whole night through. Now you say you’re sorry, for being so untrue, you can cry me a river, cry me a river. I cried a river over you.” So don’t just apologize, but make amends, make change, and then walk the walk. And you might want to look at what companies that are flourishing are doing to attract, retain, and energize the workforce. Being authentic and vulnerable is a delicate balance, but you can't create a sustaining culture without it.

One of the most comprehensive studies on the underlying drivers on “what’s going on” with “The Great Resignation” was published by MITSloan Management Review. Spoiler alert: it’s not compensation. A toxic corporate culture is 10 times more likely to predict turnover than compensation. The good news: short-term retention safeguards such as lateral promotions and hybrid work environments pay larger retention dividends than compensation alone. You don’t want the Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams duet Too Much, Too Little, Too Late playing in the background. If you are serious about changing culture, then ask for help. As a practitioner, I consider building culture an area of creativity where companies and leaders can make real change. What does help look like for you? Are you willing to invest in what you don't know?

7. The Outcome/Future: Days Like This

Driving change in teams, big or small, and re-imagining how we work isn’t easy. It takes a heavy dose of optimism to move forward. I couldn’t think of a better closing anthem on the enthusiasm that the future of work offers than with Van Morrison’s Days Like This. Change requires listening, strategy, retooling, and insight. Today's leaders and businesses understand that to be successful, delayed gratification is necessary. We didn't get here overnight and change takes time. Yet, we can celebrate small wins along the way. As Morrison reminds us, “when all the parts of the puzzle start to look like they fit it, Then I must remember there'll be days like this.” We need to pause all the "doing" for a moment to look at the puzzle pieces. Then, if needed, ask for help. What can you do to become a future-of-work leader or take your company to the next level?

Break The Tape Leadership is here to help. I’m committed to what the future of work has to offer, so much so that I invite you to schedule a complimentary 30-minute session to help you make a difference.

Author note: The list of possible songs that I could of used for “The Great Resignation Playlist” was long and surprisingly cathartic. If you would like to create your own playlist, I’d be happy to amplify and broadcast. Use the tag #BTTLPlaylist. And you can also listen to this BTTLPlaylist on Spotify.


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