Three Questions to Turn the Great Resignation into a Great Opportunity

This article was originally published by Forbes here.

For decades, people living under communism sought to escape their countries and flee to the West. The communist governments went to extreme lengths to keep their citizens from leaving. The most famous example of this is the Berlin Wall.

During the reconstruction of Berlin that followed the war, it soon became evident to residents that the philosophies of the Western democracies that controlled part of the city were much more effective at returning the area to prosperity when compared to the Eastern zone controlled by the communists. So many people sought to move across the city to the Western zone, where they would have better opportunities to work and provide for their families, that the east began suffering a massive emigration of people.

The East Germans looked at their problems — and how much they were falling behind the West — and seemed to blame their issues on the people who were fleeing. They probably had questions like: How could they improve their area if people kept leaving? Why couldn’t those people think about the good of the community and not just themselves? To solve this, East German officials stopped allowing their people to go to West Berlin. The challenge was that people were so determined to flee the desolation of East Berlin that they would go to extreme lengths to get there, causing the East Germans to eventually build a wall manned with soldiers who had orders to shoot anyone attempting to cross.

I have wondered about those governing East Germany. It seems that they would have realized that everyone living in the city was trying to go somewhere else because their needs couldn’t be met where they were. Wouldn’t you think that at some point, instead of blaming the people who were trying to leave, those leading would see that the other side was better at providing for its people and that perhaps their side ought to change the way they govern?

Many business leaders have been frustrated over the past few months as they have felt the pain of so many people leaving. During the so-called “Great Resignation,” record numbers of people have quit their jobs in search of something different. As every business leader knows, turnover is costly, so the frustration is understandable.

Unfortunately, many of the leaders impacted are taking the mindset of those who governed East Berlin and are seeing themselves or their companies as a victim of circumstances or placing the blame on “disloyal people” who are thinking only of themselves.

I suppose it’s human nature to vilify those who leave us. When people leave our companies, don’t we often blame them instead of the system that can’t meet their needs? What walls have we built to make our people stay? Are we relying on contracts and legal threats to keep people working for us?

Instead of acting like East Berlin, let’s be West Berlin, or somewhere people are trying to get into. Businesses that are dealing with high turnover have the opportunity to make themselves into a place that attracts and retains great people. Here are three things to think about to become a business where people want to come and stay.

1. Are we meeting basic needs? While those in the West were seemingly flourishing, East Berliners often didn’t have the basic necessities of life. Compensation doesn’t create engagement, but being too out of market becomes a problem. In a time of wage and cost inflation, businesses need to look afresh at both compensation amounts and structures.

2. Do we respect the dignity of the individual? The communist philosophy said that no one individual was important but only had value as a part of the group. People longed to escape to the West where their individual rights were protected by law. Highly effective companies are full of people who are given the chance to be the best version of themselves. Every individual desires and deserves to be treated with respect and being in that kind of environment creates the freedom to innovate and improve.

3. Do we give people something to aspire to? People not only want the freedom to improve their own circumstances but also to be a part of improving the world around them. Great companies do well while doing good. They create value for customers, employees and owners. They have clarity of purpose and a strategy to accomplish it.

The Great Resignation may feel unique, but it is nothing new — a mass migration of people looking for something better. It represents an incredible opportunity for great companies to become the destination for talented people. It is the job of leaders to create the environment where people want to be.

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