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The Great Resignation and the Search for Belonging

In August, 4.3 million people left their jobs — a pandemic record. The Great Resignation has left employers wondering what workers want, and how they can keep them.

In The Great Resignation: How Employers Drove Workers to Quit, Kate Morgan points out that ‘workers are making decisions to leave based on how their employers treated them — or didn’t treat them — during the pandemic.’

Some workers’ concerns stem from practical issues, such as how employers dealt with the pandemic. Yet they are all rooted in one central issue — does my employer value me?

Because each employee has different needs, leaders need to play chess, not checkers. Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy point out in their book No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work that

In checkers, every piece is the same. But winning a game of chess requires you to understand each piece’s strengths and weaknesses.

As individual leaders, we may not be able to influence larger issues, such as compensation or organizational policy. But we can do a great deal to ensure our team members feel like they belong. Liz and Mollie detail several ways in their chapter on culture.

Remember, ‘emotional culture cascades from you’. For better or for worse, you play a central role in how your direct reports feel when they’re at work. So how can you use this power for good?

Be Aware of Emotional Contagion

By your behavior, you tell people what emotions they can express in the workplace. These cues can be as simple as nodding when someone expresses excitement or interrupting when someone expresses sadness.

It can be helpful to actually make these unwritten rules visible, as Giles Turnbull did for the UK Government Digital Service when he wrote the ‘It’s ok to…’ list. Try working with your team to create your own list.

Practice Selective Vulnerability

No matter how good you think you are, people can tell on a subconscious level if you’re denying your feelings. We’re wired to ‘pick up on fakeness, especially in our leaders.’

But sharing too much can also have a negative impact. Your team needs to trust that you can lead them through the storm.

Instead of simply sharing how you’re feeling, try pairing your feelings with a way forward. Imagine you’re feeling stressed about a new initiative. You could say, ‘I’m feeling stressed about this too and I believe in our ability to implement this change. Here’s a way we can start….’

Be aware of the weight that your team members carry — and what they’re capable of carrying. Don’t overload them beyond their capacity.

Recognize That Sometimes It’s About the Group

Your direct reports, particularly those from marginalized groups, may be asking themselves not ‘Do I belong?’ but ‘Does my group belong?’ If they answer no, they may be expending a great deal of effort to conform to dominant cultural norms.

To address this issue, start by acknowledging that other people’s experiences differ from yours, partly because of your different group memberships. Listen to people — and believe them.

You can also try incorporating positive microactions, such as using people’s correct names and pronouns, that lets people know they belong.

Emotions belong in the workplace. In fact, we can’t keep them out. If we try, they’ll just go underground where they can wreak havoc out of sight. As a leader you play a crucial role in how safe people feel at work. You can create a culture of belonging where people want to stay.

For more ideas check out:

No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work by Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy

An upcoming training on creating connection and belonging on hybrid teams from the Leadership Development Team at DES.

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Trisha Cronin

Trisha Cronin is the Washington State Leadership Development Program Manager. She works with the Leadership Development facilitators to provide excellent training for supervisors and managers across the enterprise. She can be reached at (360) 464–7578.

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We deliver high quality, cost effective support services to state government. DES features expertise in statewide contracting, training, printing & mail operations, human resources and financial systems, facilities management, and care of the state capitol grounds and buildings.

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