Yes, Leaders Must Share Blame in the Mass Resignations

Corporate leaders of a century ago would probably not recognize their counterparts of today.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the business of economic leadership has been steadily refined. Today, it is a vastly complicated set of skills and required understanding sufficient to be the basis of sophisticated and costly courses at the world’s centres of high learning.

Where are we now on the curve?

It used to be you set out to become “tactically and technically proficient.” In the last two decades you had to be technology savvy. Today’s notion of leadership is focused on those who execute the strategy.

The leader’s role today, while still based in performance, is more comprehensively described as “a motivator, coordinator, developer of people and shared visions”.

Sounds good. But this year millions of employees walked off the job — almost 20 million in the U.S. alone. They had no interest in shared visions.

The catalyst was the Covid-19 pandemic which has killed 5.06 million people and incapacitated 250 million, devastating the working world. Heaviest hit were healthcare and tech, both fields that experienced extreme increases in demand leading to increased workloads and burnout. But the list is broad. We saw high losses among custodial staff and orderlies in hospitals, teachers and child-care workers, grocery clerks and supermarket workers, delivery people, factory and farm workers, and restaurant staff. High stress and low wages characterize most in this list.

You would have to hate CEOs to blame them for all that.

The truth is, few studies to date have examined the role that leaders are currently playing. Those that have are critical.

The BBC, in a report titled “How employers drove workers to quit” found that many workers quit as a result of the way their employer treated them during the pandemic. This is backed up by a Stanford study that showed companies that resorted to layoffs and did not support workers paid for it. Workers expected their employers to help alleviate, or at least acknowledge, their concerns and companies that failed to do so suffered.

This was a fact of life long before Covid. . A 2018 Udemy study found that nearly half of employees who quit did so because of a bad manager, and almost two-thirds believed their manager lacked proper managerial training.
A recent study by Predictive Index revealed that, of employees with a bad manager, a staggering 63% were planning to leave within a year.

“So the change was happening before the pandemic,” says Alison Omens, chief strategy officer of the research firm that collected the BBC data, “with a real increase in what people are looking for in terms of their expectations of CEOs and companies”.

“While financial incentives are a start, a major shift in priorities means it’s not just about the money. Many retail and service workers are moving to entry-level positions elsewhere that actually pay less, but offer more benefits, upward mobility and compassion.”  

It seems a reasonable assumption that most of the millions of workers who quit in 2021 had already thought about it. The stresses imposed by the pandemic in terms of extra workload, long hours, fear of infection, disrupted work schedules and “no-one here has my back” pushed them over the edge. If there was also a mediocre manager in the mix, it was game over.

But if the middle manager is the fall guy, or girl, the CEO is not off the hook. A leader conscious of the importance of empathy would be more involved and aware regarding the performance of the company’s managers.

Gallup’s ongoing “State of the American Workplace” contains this conclusion that squarely places the responsibility for a harmonious, productive workplace on the leader.

“The single biggest decision you make in your job — bigger than all the rest — is who you name manager. When you name the wrong person manager, nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits – nothing.”.

All leaders should learn one thing about their job. You are accountable. The buck does indeed stop at you.

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