The Great Resignation is the Result of a Crisis of Meaning

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People are quitting their jobs in droves. In 2021, an average of more than 3.95 million workers left their jobs each month. This is a stark contrast to 2020, when roughly 9.6 million workers lost their jobs. In less than a year, Americans went from being laid off to intentionally walking away from their job, and it is continuing to surge with another 4.4 million separating from their employer in April 2022. But this trend has been building for years. The pandemic merely accelerated something that was already happening.

What’s Driving This Large-Scale Trend?

Yesterday’s context is where work is about making money using one’s skills and labor, but that time is passing. Meaning is becoming more critical, but we’re just beginning to understand how to wield it as humans. Unfortunately, the models used for job placement (and engagement) are no longer adequate. Recruiting, in general, understands how to screen for skills, negotiate dollars and even assess performance in past environments. But none of this is cracking the code for determining a good culture fit or facilitating our connection to work or an organization. Gallup, MIT, HBR and many others are learning that Meaning isn’t just one factor but the most significant factor.

The core issue is that there are two Meaning journeys happening at once – that of the organization and, separately, that of the employee. As the studies show, the days of retrofitting employees to an organization’s mission, vision, and values are no longer working. Therefore, having suitable tools and approaches that help us separate these journeys and engage in a different dialogue is vitally important to understanding how Meaning works for professionals and organizations.

Managers struggle with this all the time. The book “First, Break All The Rules” speaks to the fact that managers play to weaknesses rather than strengths and how that is the opposite of what will deliver the best results.

What Is Meaning?

Philosopher Bijoy Goswami defines Meaning as the models by which a being parses its existence. It’s a definition that goes beyond how we feel without excluding it but includes our actions. Essentially, Meaning is how we interpret our experiences and engage with life. Many things can be called meaningful, but we each have beliefs, expectations and rituals that tap our emotions, command our focus and activate a sense of agency. That kind of personal, core Meaning is visceral. It’s so deeply ingrained that it can alter our immune systems, reduce stressors and give us a sense of well-being.

You Can’t Supply Meaning

Organizations have been trying to give employees Meaning for decades, and it’s been an epic failure, hence the persistent climb in resignations. To wield Meaning, organizations and their employees have to begin to understand it. It’s a movement that starts with each person taking responsibility for their own journey and leaning into difficult conversations, first with themselves and then with the people they work with. Organizations can’t give Meaning because it’s a subjective function that needs to be developed within each individual. Each person and each organization bring its own experiences to the conversation.

For organizations that want to create an environment where Meaning can be harnessed for value and performance, you have to start with a conversation about how to devote time and space for internal psychological development. It takes time; it’s difficult, but it gains momentum and has an impact quickly.

In the past, we would observe Meaning as “soft skills” and chalk them up to one’s innate abilities. But we are now learning that these are skills we can all learn through disciplined exercises of self-reflection. We’ve mastered the tools of the external world – technology and its improvements are cruising along just fine. The next giant leap of progress is the journey within.

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