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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.

3. Inertness: The treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also inactivity.

In business, this plays out in several ways: micromanaging of employees, poor process workflow that leaves employees unable to progress their portion, the mismanagement of teammates who are blocking the workflow of others, and you can add others that you've observed or experienced.

4. Fungibility: The treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects.

Businesses can say this doesn't happen, but looking at employee churn rates and exit interview questionnaires tells a different story. But are leaders listening?

"None so deaf as those who refuse to listen." -Samuel Jackson, The Protege movie

5. Violability: The treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity.

In business, this is an extension of the first point. For example, employees are expected to work long, relentless hours, go from meeting to meeting without an opportunity to catch their breath, all while finding time (usually personal time) to complete a project, learn the new skill required, and so forth. Either employees can't say no (set boundaries), or their integrity is questioned when they do say no. The pandemic magnified this issue by removing almost all leisure and rest while at the same time layering the work of career and the work of home/family.

6. Ownership: The treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold).

Slavery was abolished long ago, yet it continues in businesses today. Businesses are stuck in the industrial age where pay = # of hours works. Do as I say, when I say, in the way I say or I'll trade you for another who will. In their isolation, employees also had time to reflect. One realization was their life had far more value than just the pay they earned for their hours worked.

7. Denial of subjectivity: The treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.

Much like my lethargy from sickness, the toll of the numbers one through six begins to set in. The weight of the experiences and the feelings they evoke weigh heavy. At some point, our souls (the seat of our emotions) cry out - I can't do it anymore.

8. Reduction to body: The treatment of a person as identified with their body or body parts.

Employees are more than their bodies (the work they can do) or their minds (the problems they can solve or generate ideas). They have hopes, dreams, fears, and failures, all in need of acceptance, acknowledgment, and support at some level. This support is a critical component in designing the work of the future. How employees will thrive, and organizations will soar as a result.

9. Reduction to appearance: The treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses.

Luckily, appearance has begun to be less of a factor. However, there are still pockets and circumstances where it plays a role. It certainly should be considered when tackling creating an empowering workplace, improved employee experience, and engagement.

10. Silencing: The treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak.

There are many examples of this. From policy changes to change management initiatives to goal setting to name a few, leaders fail to gather the input or consider the opinions of their employees. As if listening to their thoughts, feelings and opinions will keep them from achieving their objective. My experience with leading by design (using the innovative leadership principles of design thinking for leadership) is the opposite. Leaders who cast a vision, gather input, and follow the steps of design thinking find they reach their objectives faster. And more importantly, they achieve their goals more unified as a team. Employees engaged and serving with greater purpose.

Seeing the trees separate from the forest

I suspect if you've read this far, you're likely telling yourself this isn't your enterprise. Yeah, maybe an isolated bad manager or two. Truth is, because of the nature of work, the unwritten agreement to be paid for fulfilling a specific role, it is difficult to distinguish the trees from the forest at times. This is where the power of leading by design comes in. We can know (not just think we know) that we aren't objectifying our employees when we have the bravery to ask questions. Not just ask for the sake of asking because that is just a waste of time. But ask in the context of the fundamental objective (the goals) - How might we achieve X goal? Taking the time to dig deep, like an archaeologist, into how the obstacles (including those above) holds the team back. However, the bravery doesn't stop with asking the questions. The courage continues as leaders are required to tame their egos so that collaborations can stay on track.

In summary, through the power of design thinking, from the vision question to identifying obstacles, you not only learn what's necessary to avoid events like the great resignation. But you also gain incredible insights into the needs and innovations possible through your greatest asset.- the creative potential of your employees.


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