Set your skills ablaze with $/£/€1,500 off a short course.

← Back to the blog

Corporate Strategies

How Leaders Build a Strong Culture…When Everyone is Quitting: 5 THINGS YOU CAN DO TODAY TO DRIVE LOYALTY LONG-TERM

General Assembly
April 13, 2022

In our last post we talked about how leaders should rethink their approach to the Great Resignation. In this post, we’ll discuss how leaders can build positive cultures while everyone is quitting. We sat down with culture expert, Bob Gower, who has spent the bulk of his career working with leaders to create effective teams, to get his advice on building cultures that survive the wave of resignations. 

The cultural causes of the Great Resignation

To understand the Great Resignation, leaders need to get to the heart of why employees are quitting. The COVID-19 pandemic reminded employees that they have a choice in where they work and how they spend their time.

“The power has often been in the hands of management or of companies,” Gower explained. “The Great Resignation is both people reevaluating themselves and taking power over their lives.” 

This new power dynamic has businesses reeling, but the movement provides clues to winning employees back if you dig deeper into the factors driving them away. Here are the top reasons employees are leaving their jobs:

#1: Burnout.

Over half of employees are currently feeling burned out by working during their precious “time off” or covering the work of more than one role. 

#2: Culture/Mission Disconnect.

Today’s workers are moving from money to meaning, shifting talent toward purpose-driven businesses.

#3: Unclear Development.

Talent also finds meaning in growth, searching for skill and career development that leads many to a career change. 

#4: Toxic Environments.

Toxic cultures show the highest levels of quitting as talent flees disrespect, unethical behavior, low-integrity teams, abusive managers, and cutthroat environments.

#5: Lack of Flexibility.

Recent years have brought new expectations for where, when and how employees get work done – and talent is rejecting strict hours and work travel.

But how does a business or leader even begin to solve these problems?  The answer requires putting culture front and center. 

2022 is the Year of Workplace Culture. Harness it.

Digital transformation challenged businesses to become customer-centric. Now, the Great Resignation is challenging them to become employee-centric. This means adopting a 360 degree focus on people — what supports, motivates and fulfills them — across all sides of the business.

The Great Resignation is in many ways an opportunity for us as a society,” Gower says. For businesses, radically rethinking the foundations of their organization and mission will lead to an active, ongoing discussion with their talent about the teams and culture they need. “The people that succeed,” Gower emphasizes, “are going to do it together.”

How can you seize this moment to create a positive culture that lasts? It’s rooted in staying connected to your humanity. Here’s how.

#1: Examine your own (potentially toxic) culture

No one wants to believe that there may be toxic behavior within their culture, but don’t assume no news is good news. Usually the most toxic trait in an organization is lack of communication, which causes silos, misaligned expectations and cycles of resentment — especially when it begins at the top.

“It all starts with the leadership team,” Gower shared. “If the leadership team has disagreements then you’re really not going to get very far as a company.”

These disagreements trickle down into organizations and put teams at war with each other. Unfortunately, it’s not rare: ​​over half of managers (54%) feel leadership at their company is out of touch with employee expectations.

To identify opportunities or places for improvement, talk to your team, both those who are staying and those who are resigning. Bring your findings to leadership and get on the same page as a team.

Remember, the Great Resignation is an opportunity for you to rethink your organization structure, what roles you need and what your culture should look like. 

As you work to improve, be proactive in communicating across your company — even when busy schedules and tight timelines want to push this to the back burner.

As you lead your business through the best of times and the worst of times, your team won’t expect you to have all the answers right away; the transparency itself will help heal your organization. This will help you not only retain talent, but foster better communication, collaboration and business results too. 

#2: STOP talking about work life balance And START creating truly inclusive spaces 

The old-faithful phrase means well, but it no longer fits our modern world. “When we talk about work-life balance,” Gower says, we create a false dichotomy around what parts of ourselves we can bring to the table. “We want work where we don’t feel like we are leaving our values behind.” 

The old dichotomy is particularly problematic for those employees that have children or are caregivers, which is why the increased pressure on hospitals and school closures disproportionately impacted women. The always-on 9-to-5 model of work does not create space for the many needs of daily life — something the pandemic highlighted as ‘work’ and ‘home’ merged.

Exchange the idea that your workers are different people at work than in their personal lives for a more authentic, fully-present approach to self. This includes shifting the view of work from financial and transactional to something additive to our lives.

This meaningful work, Gower says, “helps us create the kind of value or the kind of world that we want to create. Those are the kinds of organizations I want to participate in, and I want to create more of.” 

When businesses aim to create spaces where people can (professionally) bring their whole selves to work, they create warm and inviting cultures where people want to stay — helping their employees understand and celebrate when work and life intersect.

#3: Redefine what productivity looks like & experiment with flexible models of working

The old-school time-spent-at-desk measure of success is not only outdated — it’s wrong.

This KPI prioritizes appearances over impact to cover up for leaders who don’t give clear, measurable goals — something Gower has seen time and again: “Leaders are very bad at measuring progress as a company,” he says. “We sort of assume that if everybody’s stressed out…they’re being really productive,” Gower explains. “Often it can indicate the opposite: people get really stressed because they’re spinning in circles and they’re not being productive.”

The new remote world has put tension on this fallacy, leaving leaders struggling to rethink return-to-office. “I see a lot of people wrapping themselves around the axle trying to think about ‘Should I reopen the office?’” — a sign, Gower says, that leaders should interrogate their underlying assumptions. “Are those assumptions valid or are there new assumptions that I could experiment with or a new way of thinking about work?”

Instead, aim to define what success looks like for every person on your team, so employees can create results instead of watching the clock. This will complement hybrid work and the freedom that workers gained by working remotely during the pandemic, and help you create a definition of productivity that works better for your business…and your employees. 

#4: Get to know your people on a personal level 

If you don’t authentically care about your employees, don’t expect them to care either. In the new worker-driven power structure, leaders must get to know their entire teams, from the most junior person to the most senior, to be sure they maintain the culture that retains talent. 

Gower shares a social science concept to explain why personal connections are so important to team performance.

“A ‘high context relationship’ means that we have a shorthand together. We developed an internal vocabulary and internal sensitivity towards each other so we have not just a business context, but we have a richer, more personal context.”

This shared context helps to ward off the misunderstandings that can grow in low-communication environments to create toxic patterns.

The key is to build trust by letting your walls down to show your humanity. Leaders can be intimidating, so you will have to lead this shift in relationship building.

Consider implementing skip-levels, starting team meetings with an icebreaker question or sharing something personal (but suitable for work) at the top of a 1-1. The more you foster a team culture where everyone knows each other, cares about each other and trusts each other, the stronger and more collaborative your culture will be — and the better your team will come together to accomplish common goals. 

#5: Get used to the fact that your people won’t stay in the same role forever

Today’s talent is eagerly pursuing growth, and if you don’t supply development opportunities, employees will go elsewhere to find them. Your best bet for retention is to give talent clear opportunities for progression within their existing roles and in other careers within your walls. 

If your employees have stayed with you, you’d be wise to reward that choice. “[Those employees who] care a lot about the job, a lot about the product, a lot about the team…but they may not yet have the technical skill, capability, or the know-how that’s needed,” Gower says, “Those people, I really want to mentor.”

This loyalty and care will provide dividends in terms of skill growth, job performance and loyalty — which is worth a lot during the Great Resignation. Growing talent from within is a way to survive the talent crunch and show employees that you care. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean every employee will stay. Gower encourages companies to address that head-on: “Say, look, we know that you’re not going to be here forever,” he says, “and we want to give you some help in terms of upskilling yourself in the [areas in which] you’re interested.”

While seemingly counterintuitive, this approach pays off in your relationship along the employee’s tenure. “Managers that invest in people…generate an awful lot of loyalty from the people that work for them.”

There are many ways to build opportunities for your team to grow: you can incorporate self-elected skilling programs within your organization — like BNP Cardif did to hit their digital transformation goals — or give employees the option to reskill into a different role within the company.

Whatever you choose, the investment is win-win: your employee gets the development opportunities so craved amidst the Great Resignation, and your organization gets a happier, more productive and loyal employee with must-have skills.

Start where you are

Building positive cultures is hard, especially in the uncertain world we live in. Of course, the only constant in life is change, and that brings good news: you have the power to change the culture in your organization. Your culture revolution will take a variety of resources that may take time to rally, but the most important step is to set the change in motion.

If you’re interested in how to build strong teams then Bob’s class Leading Great Teams might be for you. If you’re interested in learning about how GA has helped leaders build positive cultures through upskilling and reskilling, get in touch.


What’s your reason for connecting? *

By providing your email, you confirm you have read and acknowledge General Assembly’s Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.