Updated: Apr 27
By Robyn Short, President & CEO, Workplace Peace Institute
Reimagining organizations by devising an innovative model that encourages productive, fulfilled, and engaged employees.
Recently, a colleague shared the idea with me that the Great Resignation is a warning — a red light flashing at us from the metaphorical dashboard of workplace culture. I appreciate this metaphor, and I agree with it.
According to this CNN article, “In total, 75.3 million workers were hired last year, while 68.9 million quit, were laid off or discharged. Out of these so-called separations, 47.4 million were voluntary quits.” 47.4 million people voluntarily left their jobs last year. This should grab the attention of every leader in every organization.
We are living in an era of unprecedented disruption, causing widespread uncertainty, conflict, and stress. The planet is warming, leading to extreme weather events. From wildfires and hurricanes to droughts and flooding, many Americans are facing unprecedented hardship from weather events alone. Gun violence is on the rise. There were 693 mass shootings in 2021. Political divisiveness is weakening our democracy. Close to 1 million people in the United States have died of Covid-19 since January 2020. And, a long overdue reckoning with racial inequality has created a necessary disruption in the workplace.
This is the reality we are living in. Prior to the culmination of so much disruption, most of us could tolerate stressful, unfulfilling workplaces. Unfortunately, many of us were even able to tolerate toxic workplaces and abusive bosses. However, as humans, there is only so much uncertainty and stress we will tolerate before something has to give. And last year, close to 48 million people determined that in the midst of so much that is outside of their control, where they work is within their control. And they left their jobs.
There are two interrelated reasons organizational leaders should pay close attention to the flashing red lights of the Great Resignation.
The first is that the collective voice of the American workforce is providing feedback, which is “something’s gotta give.” As leaders, it is our responsibility to hear that feedback and respond. The second is that we have a responsibility to fulfill the mission and vision of our organizations. And we cannot do that with a burnt out, exhausted, unfulfilled, and stressed workforce. The answer is not to support employees in cultivating resilience. We must create a work environment that does not require them to be so resilient. We must respond to this feedback because we care about the people we lead, and because we care about the organization. To do this, we must create a workplace culture of dignity.
Dignity is our inherent worth and value as human beings. Every employee needs to experience dignity in the workplace. When they do, they thrive. And when people thrive, organizations thrive.
In this era of unprecedented change and disruption, organizations must prioritize life-affirming workplace cultures that are grounded in human security and dignity in order to attract and retain employees.
Gallup defines culture as “how we do things around here.” I appreciate the more nuanced definition offered by Kenneth Cloke in his book, Mediation in a Time of Crisis (GoodMedia Press, 2021):
[Culture is] how we approach our environment, how we group and separate from one another, how food is produced and consumed, how gender is perceived and displayed, how space and boundaries are established, how time is defined and used, how learning takes place, how people play and laugh, how goods are made, used, exchanged, and distributed.
Culture is how we perceive and process reality. It is shared beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and customs. It is a way of life, a method for differentiating and integrating, a set of lessons on how to satisfy needs and navigate environments. It is an accumulation of successful adaptations, and agreed upon meanings of symbols, events, sensations, behaviors, and communications. It is what everyone knows, and no one talks about.
Culture is shaped beneath the surface, at a level deeper than conscious attention, where we seek to avoid the uncertainty and chaos of conflict; to alleviate, resolve, and learn from the fear and pain they provoke; to encourage cohesion, collaboration, and community — all of which require significant conflict resolution skills.
How do we create a culture where everyone thrives?
At Workplace Peace Institute, we believe that culture development is grounded in five key criteria:
Trust: Trust is the belief that the words and actions of one’s leadership and coworkers will reliably align and that workplace processes will produce results that are in the best interest of the organization’s members, mission, and purpose. Learn how to create trust in the workplace.
Creativity: Creativity is a process that begins with a genuine encounter with a business need and involves an intense absorption into an idea, thought, and/or desire. Learn how to cultivate creativity in the workplace.
Employee Contribution: Employee contribution is the ability to share one’s intellectual and emotional resources, skills, and talents in support of an organization’s mission and purpose. Learn how to invite full and authentic contribution from employees.
Environmental Needs: The environmental needs are the external criteria necessary to most effectively connect an organization’s members to their work and to one another in such a way that brings forth their greatest potential. Learn what employees need from their work environment.
Dignity: The ability to experience dignity through feedback mechanisms established by the organization conveys to its members that their individual contributions are valued and that the organization supports the individual in their personal and professional growth. Learn how targeted feedback cultivates dignity in the workplace.
To build a culture development strategy, organizations need to have a genuine understanding of their current culture. To do that, leaders need to go directly to their employees to inquire about their lived experiences in the workplace. This is done through a culture and employee engagement audit. With this feedback in hand, it becomes possible to create an actionable plan for creating a workplace culture where people and business thrive.
As individuals, there is very little we can do to create the widespread change necessary to reverse climate change, to prevent gun violence, and to bring peace to politics. But as organizational leaders, we can have a transformative impact on the lives of our colleagues by cultivating a culture of dignity in the workplace. We can transform the Great Resignation into the Great Reimagined Workplace.
Dr. Robyn Short is the president and CEO of Workplace Peace Institute – an organizational systems design and research firm that is singularly focused on creating workplace cultures where people thrive. Workplace Peace Institute supports small to mid-sized businesses in optimizing employee engagement, maximizing organizational productivity, and improving profitability by infusing human security and dignity as foundational attributes of their business model.