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The Great Resignation in the Age of Regret and What to Do About It

There’s a classic scene in the movie Anchorman where Will Ferrell’s character, Ron Burgundy, decides he should come to the rescue of his love interest by jumping into the bear pit at the San Diego Zoo. He lands in the pit, looks up at a bear, and says, in a whisper, “I immediately regret this decision.”

We’ve all been there, right? Well, not in the bear pit at the San Diego Zoo, of course. But we’ve all made decisions we’ve come to regret, some immediately and others after the master teacher known as time has helped us see the error of our ways.

We’re starting to see this play out in the aftermath of what’s been dubbed The Great Resignation. In 2021, more than 47 million employees in the United States voluntarily quit their jobs. The pandemic played a role in sparking these departures, but the growing “quit rate” has been a trend since 2009. What seems to be new is that many of those who quit their jobs during the pandemic are experiencing regret.

In a recent global survey of nearly 2,000 employees sponsored by UKG, more than 40 percent of the workers who had left a company said they were “better off at their old job.” They were experiencing many of the same issues at their new company, the said, “with none of the familiar faces and routines.” Some of them – 1 in 5 – had returned to their prior company, and many others said they were considering the so-called “boomerang” option.

Regardless of where you work or what you do, there’s a good chance these trends are having an impact on you. The Great Resignation in the Age of Regret isn’t happening in isolation. You might be thinking of changing jobs, or you changed jobs and you’re having second thoughts, or you manage or lead employees who are wrestling with these issues. Or maybe you are in more than one of those situations.

What do you do, especially when the world tends to offer conflicting advice like follow your gut/instincts/heart but don’t forget that failure to plan is planning to fail? There’s no silver-bullet solution, but here’s some ideas to consider:

If you are thinking of quitting your job. The obvious advice if you are unhappy in your work is to spend time evaluating why. The key, I believe, is to do this with an open mind. Take responsibility for your role in your unhappiness and don’t automatically trash your employer. As author Steve Farber says, “don’t start by jumping to the conclusion that you’re in the wrong place. … Instead, use this opportunity to reflect and consider your work in the greater context of your life and goals.”

Farber recommends a four-step process: One, remember why you took the job in the first place. Two, make an inventory of your tasks, projects, roles, responsibilities, and other aspects of your work, and then circle the things you enjoy and put a square around the ones you don’t. Three, highlight the things that resonate with you the most (the tasks you love doing, the people you care about the most). Four, review the highlighted list every day.

If you work through that type of process and decide it’s not worth it to stay, make sure you are running to something better and not just running from something you don’t like.  

If you’ve left your job and regret it. You still might start with Farber’s process, because that might help you remember why you left and what drew you to the new opportunity. A little reflection could help you feel better about your decision and recommit to it.

On the other hand, the longer you travel down the wrong road, the further you’ll get from your destination. If you took a wrong turn, stop and re-direct. You might go back to your previous employer, if that’s an option, or you might take your lessons learned to a new opportunity.

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If you are a manager experiencing high churn rates on your team. It can be easy to get defensive and blame the “fickle, entitled brats” in the workforce for making your difficult job even more difficult. Don’t take that route. This is a good time to remember that you can only control the things you can control. So, control your attitude (keep it positive, empathic, and helpful) and do all you can to create a culture that attracts and retains the type of people you want on your team.

The top reason U.S. workers left their jobs in 2021 was low pay, according to the Pew Research Center, and you may have no control over wages. But if you prepare people for new opportunities and treat them with respect, then you will have addressed the second and third most common reasons people leave.

One suggestion I gleaned from the UKG report is to conduct “stay interviews” – casual discussions with employees about what they enjoy about their jobs and the company. This will help you keep doing the things you’re doing well, identify some of the gaps, and, as the UKG report said, “build a culture of trust, belonging, open communication, and loyalty.”

If you are an organizational leader. The higher up you are on the org chart, the more say you have over things like wages and benefits and the more responsible you are for modeling what you want to see in the culture.

There are tons of things you can and should do the help recruit and retain top talent, far too many to cover in this blog. But here’s some advice I think applies regardless of what you do: Remember, we are human beings, not human doings. Be the person you would want to follow and be aware that your managers and employees are human, too. They, like you, don’t have all the answers.

Finally, if you are thinking about jumping into a lion’s pen. Don’t. Think about why someone might jump into a lion’ pen, even metaphorically. To save someone. To impress someone. To intentionally self-destruct. To get away from whatever is outside the pen. To take on an extreme challenge. No matter the reason, the lion almost always wins and you, like Ron Burgundy, will immediately regret that decision.

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