Many ‘experts’ and HR pundits have written about the “Great Resignation,” also known as the ‘Big Quit.’ The Great Resignation is the ongoing trend of employees voluntarily leaving their jobs (and as a result, their employers), since the spring of 2021.
HR experts and leaders have explained the Great Resignation through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow, an American psychologist, first proposed this theory in his 1943 paper titled A Theory of Human Motivation and later in his 1953 book, Motivation and Personality. The theory is composed of a five-tier “hierarchy” in which lower level needs must be satisfied before individuals can attend to higher level needs.
‘Experts’ explain that, as a result of the pandemic, employees have discovered that their jobs and/or their employers were not – in fact – satisfying their needs. (While I am not interested in this specific point, for further explanation on this issue you can read EY’s Antidote against the Great Resignation (written by Woody Driggs and Jeff Stier)).
Although there are some elements of truth in viewing the Great Resignation through Maslow’s hierarchy, I believe that we cannot understand the Great Resignation phenomenon without another famous American social psychologist: Leon Festinger (1919 – 1989), and in particular through his theory of Cognitive Dissonance.
Festinger contributed significantly in the field of social psychology. He was the pioneer of social comparison and cognitive dissonance theory.
Festinger’s theory proposes that inconsistency among beliefs or behaviors causes an uncomfortable psychological tension (i.e., cognitive dissonance), leading individuals to change one of the inconsistent elements to reduce dissonance, or to add consonant elements to restore consonance.
I believe that Festinger’s theory plays a bigger role than Maslow’s in explaining the Great Resignation in that the Great Resignation is the result of employees restoring consonance.
I have been immersed in the world of HR since 2005, when I became an employment lawyer in California. I have observed CEOs, in-house legal teams, HR leaders, and spoken with thousands of employees.
These experiences have convinced me that the performative BS and virtue signaling that corporate America have blasted at every occasion (#MeToo, BLM, etc.) has created a state of cognitive dissonance between companies and their employees. The lived realities of employees are vastly different from what CEOs idealize in company all-hands presentations. After living through COVID-19, which altered many if not all aspects of everyday life, individuals are no longer content with working for organizations whose actions do not mirror their promises. The Great Resignation is a result of employees recognizing the dissonance they experience within their workplace, and leaving in an effort to restore consonance.
The antidote to the great resignation starts with a simple idea: respecting your employees, and listening to their concerns. Stop the performative BS, and start doing the real work. Conduct an employee engagement survey, and listen to the results. Hold leaders accountable, and stop making excuses if progress isn’t being made. Your people are your most valuable asset; they should be treated as such.
At the most fundamental level, returning back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for a moment, you must create a safe workplace for your employees. If your employees do not feel safe coming to work with all of their identities, how can they be expected to focus and drive growth for your organization? If you don’t know where to start, or what a safe workplace would look like for your organization, reach out to me. I’m happy to help.
There have been numerous examples of employees leaving their organizations, and calling them out when doing so (see two Walmart employee resignations here and here; see two discrimination lawsuits brought by Francoise Brougher, formerly with Pinterest, and Laura Schwab from Rivian). Regardless of the size of your organization, retaining talent starts with creating a workplace where employees feel safe and respected.
We are experiencing the Great Resignation today because employees (people) have decided to restore resonance.
Employers that want to stop the Great Resignation must work together (preferably with #NotMe Solutions) to create respectful workplaces, for real. No more gasligthing. Before employers decide to fix societal problems and give lessons to the rest of the world, start by fixing your workplaces first. Focus on your people. It starts at home. Always.