Wherever you look, be it Germany, France, United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Canada, the U.S. and pretty much everywhere in between, people are quitting or thinking about quitting.
But the so-called “Great Resignation” buries the lede. It’s like writing a story about the final of the World Cup of soccer but never mentioning what team won upfront.
What has happened since the onset of the pandemic is one of society’s most crucial self-reflection exercises. Each of us has felt it. The entire globe of working adults has experienced it. Whether or not we quit our job is missing the point. Instead, we keep asking ourselves a simple question:
“Do I belong?”
That question boils down to the concept of something else: human agency.
We’ve entered a new domain in the almost post-pandemic era. Borrowing from a conversation that I had with my friend, author Eric Termuende, I too think the self-reflection that has occurred over the past 20 months or so has given birth to “The Great Awakening.” The Great Resignation is merely an outcome.
We finally opened our eyes fully and saw what might be. Perhaps what should be. We have also recognized what we don’t like.
Think of the essential workers during the pandemic battling both a highly contagious virus and idiotic customers. During any moment of downtime that they could spare, front-line team members wondered aloud why they had to put up with anti-maskers at the shop’s front door.
Furthermore, many of them still can’t understand why it’s so hard to earn a fair wage, let alone comprehend why their boss treats them so inhumanely. It has been building for years.
For those not working in hospitals, long-term care homes, restaurants, grocery stores or in other front-line positions, there has been the greatest work-from-home experiment in the history of our humanity. Millions of knowledge workers have spent hours on end staring into a laptop screen—curious as to why their colleagues never turn on their webcam for meetings—while multi-tasking in a cocoon of career contemplation.
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It has lasted for months and months and months.
As we’ve cocooned and thought about our lives, we’ve come to question our self-worth. Is it worth it? (And the it I am referring to is the trifecta of organization, boss and role.)
Wherever people have operated or worked during the pandemic—be it onsite or at home—several critical questions of belonging (and agency) are being asked:
- Do I feel valued by my organization, team, and direct leader?
- Can I bring my true self to all interactions?
- At my place of work, is the culture an inclusive, positive, and supporting one?
- Does my organization operate with a higher sense of purpose, serving all stakeholders?
- Am I able to make decisions, contribute feedback & provide insights as necessary?
- Have I attained an acceptable level of self-worth in both my life and at work?
People may not have truthfully asked these sorts of questions at the beginning of the pandemic, but the pondering is now coming fast and furious. These matters are front and center. The entire situation has forced us to contemplate who we are.
For many people, there is no going back. The Great Awakening is in full force. Just review the labor data and employee surveys. It’s everywhere you look.
Centuries ago, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, an Italian scholar and philosopher of the Renaissance, wrote about the potential of human achievement and free will in his discourse, “The Oration on the Dignity of Man.” A particular passage points out a paradox to note:
“[F]or it is not the bark that makes the tree, but its insensitive and unresponsive nature; nor the hide which makes the beast of burden, but its brute and sensual soul; nor the orbicular form which makes the heavens, but their harmonious order. Finally, it is not freedom from a body, but its spiritual intelligence, which makes the angel.”
Despite the tragedy that is the COVID-19 pandemic, this era has become a unique catalyst for a colossal change in beliefs. Decades of pent-up frustration have boiled over. Essential workers’ exasperation has become the norm. Employees able to work-from-home have begun seeing the light. What had been building up for years is now spilling into the mainstream.
A good number of employees now say, “Enough is enough. I need out.” But to where? And why? How?
It is evident to me that a leadership reckoning has begun. It will last for many quarters beyond. People are exploring and redefining their human agency, voicing huge concerns over a lack of organizational care. Walkouts at Netflix and Google and recent tumult inside of Apple are merely the headlines. This is not going away.
The relentless and toxic organizational norms, cultures, and practices, not to mention poor leadership habits are so deep-rooted it makes an episode of The Sopranos seem like a fairy tale.
It’s the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie, executives versus front-line team members, management versus union, Jedi versus the Sith. But, at its core, it is you versus them, self versus the machine of business.
Your human agency is the antidote, the trigger to set off a positive change in your life. Your feelings, independence, choice, and action must give birth to this secret agent superpower known as human agency. It’s within your grasp. It’s at your fingertips.
But there is always a yin to the yang. We can’t solely believe that human agency on its own will cure us of all the ills of past leadership transgressions. Lightbulbs need power of some sort to shine. Rowboats need oars if they are to make any headway. Any school requires educators to teach the students.
If organizations don’t come to grips with their past—and then figure out a plan to address this leadership reckoning—the resulting calamity may be perpetual. It may mean the firm’s demise.
That is why we need a personal playbook of some sort to understand how to navigate the various forces of good and evil inside the organization. Without it, you’ll be stuck in the endless loop that has sucked the souls of employees dry since the early 1970s.
This cycle needs to end.
As the great Viktor E. Frankl wrote in his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning:
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
It is time to change our true selves.
For the foreseeable future, you will have to grapple with what I call “The Age of Agency.” It’s overdue. It’s for all of us; individual contributors, mid-management, and senior leaders. If addressed positively, the aftereffects will be breathtakingly advantageous for many years to come to all parties.
I am setting forth to research and write about the relationship between our human agency and organizational dynamics. I don’t believe anyone can reach full human potential without understanding the concept of human agency and what gets in the way from an organizational culture perspective.
I think this work might result in some form of code breaker for leaders and team members alike. If you have any initial thoughts or contributions, feel free to reach out to me directly here.
Check out my 4th book, “Lead. Care. Win. How to Become a Leader Who Matters.” Amy. C. Edmondson of Harvard Business School calls it “an invaluable roadmap.” There’s also a self-paced online leadership development masterclass available. Nearly 100 videos across nine practical leadership lessons.