Toxic Corporate Cultures are Driving the Great Resignation

Source: Shutterstock, Leremy

At the tail end of 2021, over 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs as part of the “Great Resignation.”  To better understand this trend, I started lurking on Reddit’s Antiwork forum a few months ago.  This forum tells the story of the Great Resignation in vivid and disturbing detail.  Post after post of workers being humiliated, mistreated, belittled, and expected to work in unsafe conditions finally telling the boss to “take this job and shove it.”

However, Antiwork is only one side of the story.  Consequently, I also started lurking in a number of other forums focused on leadership, entrepreneurialism, and startup businesses.  These forums tell a profoundly different story.  While some leaders (like myself) are genuinely sympathetic to the struggles of workers, most are not.  These leaders blame everything from weak education, government handouts, and even Hollywood movies for causing workers to revolt.  They are genuinely panicked, but conceal it with rage, arrogance, racism, and many other forms of hatred.

Predictably, these leaders never blame themselves.

In the midst of all my lurking, along comes some new research from the Association for Change Management Professionals (ACMP). This article provides fascinating evidence on how toxic work culture impacts turnover. A core conclusion of this report is that companies with good cultures have lower turnover.

The ACMP research also shows that the Great Resignation defies simplistic answers.  However, among the many insights, there is a loud and clear one for leaders: workers are fed up with the toxic, American work culture. While low pay and weak benefits are undoubtedly significant factors driving resignations, toxic work culture is the real leviathan lurking under the surface.

Fixing corporate culture is equally a complex effort that also defies simplistic answers. However, one of the lessons I learned in my own leadership training was: when there is success, look out the window. When there is failure, look in the mirror. This was a reminder to reflect on my own behaviors when there were problems, rather than jumping to blame everybody else.

While a top ten list of ideas to improve corporate culture is woefully inadequate, there is only so much I can jam into a blog. With that in mind, here are my 10 ideas for leaders who want to improve corporate culture

Ten Ways to Clean Up Corporate Culture

1.       It is Not About You

I am appalled at how tone-deaf many leaders are about their own importance.  They will toss around all the big and important people they know, as if that is some fabulous accomplishment that grants them authority over everybody.  Workers do not care that you met Andy Grove at a really chic party.  Proximity to power is not an accomplishment. Bragging about your own importance only makes sycophants respect you. For everybody else, this makes them feel inferior and resentful.

Talk about the team and their accomplishments. Talk about great ideas. Talk about plans for the future. Talk about anything other than yourself, who you know, and what you did ten years ago – nobody cares.  Which is a good segue to the next item.

2.       Listen

Following from the previous item, nobody likes the blathering blowhard who talks over everybody (boy, did I learn that the hard way.)  There are numerous Antiwork posts from workers fed up with being talked down to, bullied, and ignored from leaders. In one post on Antiwork from a few months back, a young woman said she was talking to her boss about a problem with their computer system. The boss just shut her down and told her she did not understand how it worked.  Fed up with the bullying, she walked out and quit on the spot.

A few years ago, I discovered a great truth about leadership: the more you talk the stupider you sound.  Shut up and listen.  Listen to the workers’ worries, concerns, and complaints.  You might not be able to solve the problems, but listening will show empathy and build connection.

3.       Stop the Hustle Culture Nonsense

Everybody has the exact same number of hours in a day to spend.  If you want spend 14 hours a day working, that is your choice.  You cannot impose that expectation on anybody else.  It is unrealistic.

If there is a lot to do, then focus on prioritizing what must be done with the time you have. It is unhealthy and unsustainable to push people to work more hours. Even the people who freely choose to work long hours should be required to take some time off. It will be good for them and everybody else.

4.       Home Invasion

Working from home and being on-line 24×7 is now the default arrangement for many workers.  There are a lot of benefits to work from home, but there are also some huge drawbacks. One of those is that people’s work is now inside their home and invading more of their time. Going into a workplace imposes a natural barrier between work and life.  Those barriers are disappearing.

If working 14 hours a day is unreasonable, so too is expecting people to be available 24×7. Work must respect people’s time off. If you need people working at odd hours or on call, then you must hire enough to balance those demands, otherwise do not offer it.

5.       PTO is Sacred

Speaking of time off, it is precious. There are a multitude of studies that overwhelmingly prove that taking a healthy amount of time off makes people more effective as employees.

However, unlimited PTO is a lie.  Make PTO simple and sacred.

6.       It is Inflation, Stupid

People are asking for raises not because they are lazy entitled communists who hate America, but because milk, bread, and cat food cost a lot more than they did a year ago.  Blame whoever you want for this, it is a serious problem that impacts the lowest paid people the most. Ranting and raving about lazy Millennials, government hand outs and the decimation of American exceptionalism only makes you sound like an idiot.

7.       COVID is not a Hoax

900,000 people are dead in the USA from COVID. That is twice the number of US citizens who died in World War II. Protecting your team’s health is a top priority of any leader.  If you are unclear on this concept, read Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last.

It is completely unacceptable and irresponsible to demand people to come to work if they feel ill.

8.       Get the Jerks Out

Nothing kills corporate culture faster than enabling or supporting bad behaviors.  A jerk employee can obliterate productivity and loyalty in mere moments. However, there is a fine line between being a jerk that destroys culture and a rockstar that defines it.  Both jerks and rockstars can have a lot of energy and ambition. Both may work hard and produce results. From a leadership position, it is easy to confuse these two.

The simplest way to tell the difference is what they talk about.  Rockstars talk about great ideas and praise others.  Jerks talk about themselves and praise those in power.  Jerks drive away good employees, rockstars drive away bad employees.

Do not hesitate. Fire the jerks. Keep an eye on the rockstars and make sure they do not devolve into jerks.

9.       Compassionate Curiosity

You want to build a healthier, happier, more engaged workplace?  Be compassionately curious.  Ask questions, seek out new ideas, and encourage people to share. Compassion builds connection with people, while curiosity drives the company’s interests forward.

We all learned this in kindergarten, and it works.

10.   People Need Purpose

One of the most common complaints from workers on Antiwork is how they feel like their job is meaningless.  Once again, I am routinely amazed at how dismissive leaders are to communicating any kind of organizational vision, mission, and values. I have observed leaders dismiss these ideas as stupid, New Age touchy-feely nonsense.

A company without vision, mission, or values may make money, but it will never make a difference.

Defining vision, mission, and values is well beyond the scope of this blog. However, the Society of Human Resource Professionals has a good primer on these concepts. The best way to build a healthier corporate culture is to define core values, mission, and vision and then strive to achieve them every day. It can provide meaning to work that may feel meaningless.

Conclusion

That last item is, in my opinion the most significant deficiency in many workplaces: a lack of meaning.  Few people work because they love what they do.  People work to feed themselves and their families.  If you look at companies which are weathering the Great Resignation well, there are some consistent themes. Obviously, good pay and benefits are part of that.  However, as the ACMP article shows, company culture has an even significant impact on employee engagement.

Corporate culture is not a pizza party, a birthday celebration, or a hoodie with the company logo.  It is the values on your wall, the mission you share, and the vision of your leaders.  If you truly want to improve culture, then:

  • Stop talking about yourself or all the money the company makes
  • Start talking about the mission, values, and vison of the organization, and how that solves problems and helps people.
  • Keep listening to those around you and show compassionate curiosity.

The Great Resignation is many different things.  Ultimately, it might be the best thing to happen to American workplaces.

 

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