THE “GREAT RESIGNATION” is real. In 2021, the number of people quitting their jobs averaged nearly 4 million per month – significantly higher than any of the previous 20 years (see chart). There is some debate about why this is happening, though I think the basic bottom line is simple: employees just have more options now. Before the pandemic, considering a job that was in another city was a big deal – is that job worth picking up and moving you and your family to a new place? Only a small number of opportunities would typically qualify for such a move, and in some metropolitan areas, even working for an organization that is in a different part of town could be ruled out simply because of commute time.
But over the last two years, most organizations figured out remote work, so now the number of opportunities (for nearly everyone) has grown exponentially. This basic math explains the great resignation – when there are a lot more opportunities, the number of job transitions will increase. It’s as simple as that. And because the increase in opportunities is so vast (think about how many organizations you could work for that are outside your 20-mile radius), we should expect this great resignation to last for some time.
That sounds like bad news for associations, but not necessarily. The phrase “great resignation” is a little misleading, because, for the most part, a resignation is quickly followed by a new hire, so it’s not really about the resignation. People aren’t suddenly focused on quitting their jobs or not working – they are focused on working someplace better. They are focused on having a job that is more aligned with who they are and who they want to become. Partially due to the dire nature of the pandemic and partially due to the increased flexibility and autonomy that they experienced as they all were able to work remotely, the “top talent” have raised the bar on what kind of work environment they are willing to tolerate.
That means that for every organization that is a “victim” of the great resignation, some other organization out there is the beneficiary. Stop focusing on the resignation part, and start working on becoming an organization that people want as their destination. Beating the great resignation is less about cajoling your current people to stay and more about creating an amazing workplace that everyone wants to be a part of. And to do that, you’ll need to focus squarely on your workplace culture.
Culture has never mattered more than it does right now. If you want to be the destination, then sure, you’ll have to write up good job descriptions, offer the right salaries, etc., but the single most important factor in retaining and attracting the best people is going to be culture.
Here’s how it works. You’ve got people right now that are considering jumping ship (sorry, but it’s true). They might even be interviewing at other places, and the one thing they will be most nervous about is the culture at the new organization. During the interviews, they’ll ask about the culture, and I’m sure the new place will have excellent answers about how awesome their culture is. Your employee won’t entirely trust their answer, of course, because it’s obviously in the new place’s interest to have a positive spin on their culture.
Your culture, on the other hand, is already crystal clear to your employee. They know exactly what it’s like to work at your organization – the good and the bad. So right at that moment, when they’re looking at your culture on one hand and listening to what the new culture might be on the other – that’s when you win or lose them. If your culture is average, it may not provide enough gravitational pull to keep them with you.
But if they know that your culture is designed intentionally to make both the employee and the organization successful, they will be much less likely to jump ship. If they know that your culture is already embracing the future of work around cultural elements like agility, transparency, customization, employee focus, and innovation, then they will need to see some real evidence that the culture at the other place is as good as they say it is. Pay and benefits you can get anywhere. But exceptional cultures are harder to come by.
So how do you make your culture exceptional? As you can imagine, there are a lot of answers to that question, since culture is a big topic, but in this article, I want to focus on removing areas of what I call “culture friction.” There is research from the change management field that suggests you will get a better ROI on removing things that are impediments to change, compared to pushing people to do the change in the first place. The same can be true with culture – find the specific parts of your culture that are getting in the way of people being successful (i.e., areas of culture friction) and remove those impediments.
For example, the way information is shared internally is a perennial source of culture friction. While most cultures embrace the value of being transparent, their approach is typically reactive – if you ask me for some information, I’m happy to share it with you. That’s certainly better than a culture where everyone hoards information, but, honestly, those cultures are rare, and the reactive approach has its limitations. Frequently, by the time people get to the point where they are asking for the information, they have already missed some opportunities to act or make better decisions. For example, because we don’t have systems in place that make it more visible what our advocacy team is working on, the meeting department staff end up not being able to answer member questions effectively when one of those advocacy issues blows up at the annual meeting. Yes, they can quickly call the advocacy team and get the answers, but they’ve already left a few key members wondering if the association is really on top of these issues because of the staff’s initial incomplete responses.
Or, in the absence of information being more proactively shared, the staff end up making up their own stories about what that information might be. This is a very natural tendency for human beings. When we have incomplete information, we fill in the gaps ourselves, because our brains want a complete picture. This has happened a lot around how associations have been planning their return to the office. It’s a complex situation with a lot of moving parts, so organizations tend to wait to release information until everything has been figured out. And they expect that people would come forward and ask if they have questions.
But the willingness to ask will depend on how inclusive your culture is when it comes to the organizational hierarchy. Most cultures today have emphasized the value of personal inclusion. They are working to create a culture where people can be themselves and be comfortable inside a group where people are different from each other. What has been less emphasized, however, is what we call “structural inclusion,” where people at different levels are more routinely included in decision making and planning conversations. If those lines are more rigid, people will be less likely to ask questions and end up making up the stories about what is happening in all those high-level discussions.
You can address those areas of culture friction directly by making targeted changes in the way you do your work. There are several different technology solutions, for example, for creating a transparency architecture that enables more information to be available to more people all the time. Asynchronous communication tools like Slack allow people to continuously share information that is then accessed by others only at the moment they need it. So, when the members ask the meetings team about the advocacy issue, a quick review of the right Slack channels could give them just enough information to effectively answer the members’ questions, without needing to take the time to find the advocacy staff and ask them.
You could also use similar tools to share updates on the return to the office planning, but another way to address the source of that friction would be to create some working groups that are made up of people from all levels in the hierarchy. When we do a culture design project with clients, we always create a “culture team” that is diverse both in terms of hierarchical levels and functional area. This not only reinforces the idea that ownership of the culture exists at all levels, but it also helps in information sharing, because each team member connects to a different group of core colleagues in the office, so information ends up being disseminated in a more decentralized way, which speeds up the information flow.
Every time you make a change to the way you do work that results in people being able to make better decisions, serve members and customers better, and feel more empowered and effective, you are improving your culture. There is more to your culture work, of course, like setting core values, creating rituals and artifacts that communicate what your culture is, and even developing metrics that connect your culture change work to measurable organizational results. But right now, in order to make sure your association is the beneficiary of the great resignation rather than a victim of it, your focus should be on eliminating areas of culture friction. You can’t make your culture perfect in a short amount of time, but you don’t have to. When people see that you are actively designing the culture to make them more successful, they will realize it’s worth sticking it out with you rather than risking a future at an unknown culture.