It was one of the odder moments in the promotion of my book, Leader by Accident: A ten-minute radio interview where the host had no interest in talking about any of the actual content of the book. The headline news that day was that 4.3 million people had quit their jobs in November (2021), signaling the start of what would become known as The Great Resignation. She was hell-bent on making that our topic of discussion regardless of the fact that it had little to do with my book on leadership. So I tap-danced, redirected, and generally tried to respond in a way that sounded intelligent and relevant.
Once it was over, though, a funny thing happened. I reflected on it at some length and realized that The Great Resignation/Great Reshuffle/employee engagement crisis was indeed a leadership issue in large measure. As I continued the circuit of podcasts and radio interviews, many of the other hosts brought it up (though not to the exclusion of everything else), and if they didn’t, I did.
Leadership and the Great Resignation
To understand what’s behind the mass exodus of workers, of course, we need to rewind a bit further to 2020 and the pandemic lockdown. There we all were in the office on Friday and then stuck at home on Monday.
Leaders had to answer the bell in new ways: All of a sudden your team members were, in many cases, not only trying to get their work done but home-schooling their kids, attempting to care for aging parents they couldn’t see in person, or any number of other personal challenges. Worse still, managers had to communicate with Zoom or MS Teams as their intermediary, crippling much of their interaction with their team members. And all of this was overlaid with the fear and uncertainty of the pre-vaccine stage of the pandemic. Leaders needed new reserves of empathy, and it’s safe to say that not all of them passed with flying colors.
As things settled into the ‘new normal,’ workplaces reopened to various degrees … and employees started heading for the exits in record numbers. Why? There’s more than one reason, of course. Some found that they really could make a living with that Etsy shop, while others decided to retire earlier than they’d planned. Still, others grew fond of not having a commute and chose new positions that allow them to work from home. And a startling number just quit without having a Plan B, opting for a stretch on the sidelines even after government support ran out.
Why are they resigning?
Really, though, answering the “what” – what people did upon leaving their jobs – doesn’t get to the root of the “why.” What was it about that giant Reset button in the form of a pandemic that made workers decide to up and leave? Again, there’s more than one answer, but an absence of leadership is near the top of the list. A comprehensive study by McKinsey looked at the top reasons for quitting, and 34 percent of those surveyed cited “uncaring and uninspired leaders.” (Which was the third-most reported reason, behind “lack of career advancement” and “inadequate compensation”). In fact, six of the top eight reasons are directly related to either leadership or organizational culture, which of course are two sides of the same coin.
As if all that weren’t enough, now we’ve added ‘quiet quitting’ to the list of organizational woes, with employees actively disengaged in their work and doing the bare minimum.
The need for empathetic leadership
Clearly, the need for empathetic leadership hasn’t ended with the pandemic. The old saying holds that “people join companies, and they quit bosses,” and that same McKinsey study says it straight out: “It cannot be overstated just how influential a bad boss can be in causing people to leave.” That’s an awful lot of pressure on a business leader. If my company is having trouble attracting and retaining enough good people, I sure don’t want to be one of the reasons they’re giving their notice.
More than ever before workers want – and expect — to be heard, to feel that their voice matters, to do meaningful work, to have opportunities for advancement, and to be supported in many ways. In short, they want empathy from their supervisors, and organizations that can foster such a culture will find themselves in a much better place.
He asked me what?
The other day I spoke on leadership to a group of about 100 people, and as we got to this topic of empathy I said, “Be honest. Think about your drive here today and raise your hand if you’re confident that at every appropriate opportunity, you used your turn signals.” About 75 hands went up. (I then added, “Including lane changes on the highway,” and several of those raised hands were slowly lowered.)
“Why do we use our blinkers?” I asked. Someone in the front row murmured, “To let other people know our intentions.”
“Other people?” I asked. “As in, the definition of empathy? Caring about other people?”
Empathy all the time
Maybe that sounds a bit silly, but the point is this: I don’t believe we can be the person flying down the highway at 90 miles per hour when everyone else is doing 65, weaving in and out of traffic, cutting people off and generally treating other drivers as obstacles instead of fellow travelers … and then step across our office threshold and put on our magical Empathetic Leader hat.
Empathy can’t be something we only do within our office walls; we have to practice it all the time. And “practice” is the right word. I use these driving examples because they’re nearly universal, but empathy is in the dozens of decisions we make all day, every day in our interactions with others. We’ll never get all those decisions right, and that’s okay. Our goal is to do better today than we did yesterday, and better tomorrow than today.
In the end, being a better, more empathetic leader means being a better, more empathetic person. That’s very simple, but not very easy, and we have to roll that rock back up the hill every single day.
-Jim Rafferty is a speaker and presenter, and author of Leader by Accident