The Need for Purposeful Leadership Amid the Great Resignation

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A version of this article was first published on Fast Company.


 

“The great resignation” is an ongoing phenomenon, which can be addressed with purposeful leadership.

The scale of the current challenge is huge, showing up as an extreme escalation of long-standing employee disengagement, with the search for meaning at work and the growing burnout epidemic as key drivers.

The statistics are staggering. Nearly 90% of workers said they’d experienced burnout over the past year, according to a summer survey from people analytics firm Visier. And in the last few months, 42% of women and 35% of men in corporate America have felt burned out (up from 32% and 28% respectively last year).

Nearly two out of three workers are considering new jobs, and more than 70% of leaders expect their best performers to leave. And the problem is not going to go away anytime soon: A 2020 BGC/Henderson study found that only 9% of non-managers want to become managers because today’s managers are burning out.

WHY NOW?

If burnout is a long-standing problem, why has it suddenly become such a well-publicized issue, warranting its own name and a trending hashtag? A lot of it can be laid at the foot of the precipitous rise in the complexity of work. This has only been exacerbated by the current pandemic, which has also added multiple stressors on the home front.

Combined with the pandemic’s wake-up call that we are fragile and that much is out of our control, this new landscape has caused employees to take fresh lenses to the idea of work-life balance. Given that professionals spend more waking hours working than doing anything else, it has also generated a widespread desire to focus on meaningful contributions at work. For those who do not find purpose in their daily work, this is increasingly leading to leaving for jobs that offer greater meaning, or to leaving the workplace altogether.

THINGS THAT DON’T WORK

A recent HBR survey found that while 87% of companies surveyed agreed that it was “very or extremely” critical that managers support employee well-being, only a quarter do much about it.

While stress management training, counseling, flex work, and other solutions all have their place, they often leave employees in the same patterns of highly stressful and complex work environments. These approaches don’t tackle the fundamental problem, which is the way we work.

Today’s knowledge worker is expected to be always on, has a long list of stakeholders to answer to, and is so busy putting out fires that the urgent frequently crowds out the important. Having time to just think and plan, or to build meaningful workplace relationships, has become a rare luxury. Too frequently, the experience is one of feeling exhausted at the end of the week and not knowing for sure what has been accomplished or why what was accomplished matters. If, in addition, work lacks a true sense of purpose, then leaving the job often looks like the only viable option.

Between the massive wave of resignations and the huge cost of burnout (burned-out employees are 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job, 63% more likely to take a sick day, and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room according to the APA), it’s urgent for employers to promote new and better ways of working.

PURPOSEFUL LEADERSHIP: A MEANINGFUL SOLUTION

The solution to the difficult picture driving burnout is not easy, but it begins with a clear first step: connecting workers to a meaningful purpose, something they can feel proud to contribute to when they show up for work every day.

McKinsey survey respondents who indicated they were “living their purpose” at work were much more likely than those not doing so to sustain or improve their levels of work effectiveness, and they had four times higher engagement and five times higher well-being. Yet only one-third of respondents believe their organizations strongly connect actions to purpose.

With purposeful work as the starting point to a more focused and sustainable approach to work, the next critical step is to bring an uncommon level of rigor to managing one’s priorities. Our precious and limited time and capacity must be very intentionally dedicated to the subset of activities that add real value. The Pareto Principle teaches us that 20% of what we focus on generates 80% of the value. Unfortunately, the way most of us work today woefully ignores that universal law. Today, with too many managers experiencing competing priorities wasting time on low-value tasks, the ability to redeploy one’s limited capacity in ways that are both reasonable and valuable not only reduces workload and fatigue but also provides the increasingly important element of motivation, which is experienced through personal contribution to meaningful value creation.

THE WAY FORWARD

While this “new” approach to work may appear conceptually obvious to most of us, it is not easy to put into practice. It requires a willingness to give up our addiction to the primacy of busyness, which has become part and parcel of modern work to the detriment of both well-being and value creation. It is only the courageous and persistent leader who takes on this battle. As the saying goes, “Bad habits cannot be tossed out the window. They must be coaxed down the stairs one step at a time.” At the same time, what could be more worthy for a leader to do than to provide meaning, sustainability, and greater effectiveness to their people?

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