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  • Karen Zeigler

What the Great Resignation is Telling Today's Leaders




Lethargy and getting your power back.


I was down a couple of weeks with the virus. At first, I tried to stay engaged in projects, on social media, and keep up with my email newsletter, but my energy levels and lethargy brought on by the high fevers just took me out. Finally, I couldn't do it anymore. The most I could do on a good day was scroll my LinkedIn feed and read the article titles that came up. So much was there about the great resignation, bad bosses, the need to improve employee experiences and stop treating them like cogs in a wheel. But I barely had the energy to click the link, much less read the deluge of content. I suspect this mirrors many employees' experience before hitting send on their resignation letter. Lethargy, hopelessness, and just finally letting go to say I can't do it anymore.


But unlike the resigned employee, the purpose I find in my work as a design thinking consultant gave me the grit and determination to get my power back. And get back to inspiring leaders and organizations to tap into the potential of design thinking and its usefulness to unlock the innovative potential of employees. Which coincidentally busts lethargy wide open with excitement and creativity for designing a better future. So each day, the naps got shorter, my ability to eat improved, and I got my power back. And then inspiration hit.


Employees take their power back by resigning.


As the brain fog began to clear from the virus, the titles I had managed to take in during my hiatus started to swirl in my overactive brain. I love searching for deeper meaning in things. When I was little, I thought I wanted to be an archaeologist. I think this idea of digging for lost treasure shows up in my work today. So I kept asking why? Why? WHY!?! I've never lost the curious aspect of childhood. In the creative problem-solving business, if you don't get to the very core of the issue, the innovation fails or, at best, a short-term fix. I knew (having done so myself) that resignations were a serious step in taking back the power to direct one's life and how one wants to live it. But the extent of the "great resignation" - 40% are contemplating leaving, and 4 million left in April alone made me want to dig deeper. What is behind this mammoth feeling of powerlessness?

The objectification of employees.


Employees feel as if they are treated like cogs in a wheel. My mind became fixed on this idea like an archaeologist who has set off the metal detector alarms as they approached buried treasure. Cogs in a wheel, I pondered. Cogs are objects. People aren't objects. Do employees feel they are being treated as objects? I knew what objectification felt like as a younger woman. In addition, I had spent almost a decade connected to and involved on some level in the human-trafficking non-profit world. And bits of my training were bubbling up and led to an intuitive hunch. I Googled "list of ways we objectivity people." At the top of the search was some research from Stanford. My jaw dropped as I glanced down the list of ten things identified as treating a person as an object. I've summarized them below and examples of their correlation in the business world. The great resignation was the what. The catalyst behind it (the why) was a great rejection. The employees' denial of being objectified.

Ten signs of objectification.


1. Instrumentality: The treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier's purpose.


In business terms, the employees are a means to an end. Our team, line of business, or company has X goal, and you are the tool for achieving that. On some level, that is part of the intended agreement for employment. Employees are hired to fill a specific role. Leaders cross the line when that's their single focus, their only concern. Leaders cross the line when they forget that employees are more than the results they complete. They are human beings, not human doings. Leaders may measure productivity by results (the what) but the why that fuels it is the true power leaders can unlock.


2. Denial of autonomy: The treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.


The need for independence has been around in business for at least a decade. Companies and leaders continued to deny that it was even possible until the pandemic proved them otherwise. Again, the great resignation is a great rejection. Employees reject being objectified and their needs not being met. Even if they have to find a way to meet them themselves.