The Great Chain Reaction: Understanding the Real Causes of the Great Resignation

The Great Resignation is not a problem. It’s a symptom of a system that’s been plagued with dis-ease for decades. The Great Resignation is the inevitable failure of corporate thinking, value systems and actions that have overlooked one simple fact: that business is a human thing. 

We can say the workforce shortage is due to a mass exodus of Gen Xers cashing in and retiring early. We can say it’s because COVID has shut down businesses leaving people unemployed. In part, these statements are factual but they’re only a fraction of the real story. If executives want to cure what’s ailing business, they have to be willing to look at the dis-ease in all its festering ugliness. They have to be willing to move beyond employee pulse surveys and understand what’s caused the pulse of business to become so ill. 

The truth is, not all Gen Xers are leaving the companies they’ve been with for years to play golf, sit on a beach or play checkers. They are retiring from those companies to seek higher ground. Cashing in and using their unexpected windfalls to start their own businesses, they’re choosing to work and live better. These folks are leaving the corporate gigs that failed them to work with more balance and less toxicity. They’re building the companies they’ve dreamed of working for, for moons. They’re choosing work that gives them purpose, joy and a sense of fulfillment. They are raising a middle finger to toxic workplaces, toxic leadership, and they are choosing to thrive.

COVID has no doubt negatively impacted and caused loads of businesses to close their doors. But there’s another side to that coin. It’s also boosted industries and created plenty of new opportunities. For example, as physical stores and restaurants closed, the demand for people delivering goods rose. According to Statista, food and beverage e-commerce revenue exceeded $20 billion US dollars in 2021.” It’s no surprise. As we hunkered in our homes, we relied on deliveries of groceries, medicine and a host of other supplies we needed to survive. The people who picked, packaged and delivered our orders, were the heroes we all desperately needed. They’ve been the life force of their respective companies since March of 2020 but they haven’t been treated that way. Far from it. Indeed reports Prime drivers earn an average of $17.21 per hour- just over $33k/year. Amazon reported their Q4 earnings last week. In 2021, the company had net sales of $470 billion US dollars. And Bezos added another $5 billion to his money arsenal. 

If demand for food delivery has soared, then why are companies like Dominos paying customers $3 to come in and pick up their own pizzas? The answer is desperation. Low industry wages are a big part of why Dominoes is in panic mode days ahead of the Super Bowl. According to Zip Recruiter, the average annual pay for a pizza delivery person in the US is about $36k. For a family of four, that’s about $10k over the poverty line. By contrast, the CEO of Dominos earned in excess of $6M in 2021.

Add up long hours, no guarantee of earning tips, the rising cost of fuel, vehicle wear and tear and it’s easy to understand why Dominos is struggling. Dominos and Amazon aren’t alone when it comes to the massive wage inequities. CEO compensation has increased by 940% over the last 40 years. Top CEOs in the UK now earn 117 times the average salary. Looking at the ugliness means asking the question. Have CEOs improved that much or created that much more value? 

Disparate pay is just one part of the corporate system that’s broken. Values are another. A value set that prioritises profitability and more market share- ‘fast, cheap and give it to me yesterday’- has created behaviours where excessive workloads, actions that reward top executives and toxic workplaces, have put people and the planet at the end of the line. These human failures in business have led to the Great Resignation and now, what we at The Kindness Corporation™ have dubbed, The Great Chain Reaction: historic workforce shortages, organisational instability, supply chain malaise, inflation… 

The fact that any of this is surprising is what’s most surprising. The systemic corporate dis-ease has been a shit show for decades. CNBC shared stats back in 2019 (long before we could blame COVID) that identified average fast food employee turnover at 130-150%. Read beyond the first paragraph and you’ll learn that many large chains in the industry stripped humanity right out of those jobs by design. They viewed people as easily replaceable commodities- another line item. And that’s only one industry. As we increase our reliance on technology and decrease the significance of people, the dis-ease of the system becomes more prominent, negatively impacting the ecosystem of business. 

CEOs are paying attention now because their bottom lines are suffering with every person who leaves their organisations. The Great Resignation is a symptom of dis-ease that has taken its toll on people. Now, those people are telling the corporate world, enough is enough. Their feet are saying what Johnny Paycheck so eloquently sang back in 1977, “Take this job and shove it.” 

2020 was a point of inflection. That point has reached boiling. There’s good news. We can heal the system through choice. The fallout we’re experiencing now doesn’t have to result in more failure. This is our moment folks- our chance to do business better by holding up a mirror and taking an inventory of the dehumanising decisions and actions that landed us here in the first place.

None of that will be easy of course. Introspection is deep soul work that requires courage. Breaking bad habits can be really tough. This is especially when those habits benefit a select few so greatly. 

Curing the dis-ease of business will require executives to focus on the human side of business. They will have to be brave enough, vulnerable enough and willing enough to change. They will have to be humble enough to admit where they’ve failed people and the planet in order to do business better today and as we move forward. For many of them, this challenge will be too hard to take on. But for modern leaders who truly want to understand how we got here and do the work needed to reset their systems, they’ll find the courage and humility to look in the mirror, engage in the work required to create better and they will thrive as a result. Those executives will embrace values that translate into thinking and action that enables their people and therefore their organisations to thrive. 

By turning our attention to the good we can do, business can have a positive impact on people and the planet. Each of us and the organisations we work for will become stronger, stable and more connected. Profitability will thrive as we thrive. The chain reaction of the Great Resignation can become Chapter One of our collective greatness. 

For organisations, this attention and intention starts at the top. Executives have to be willing to identify where their choices have failed people and the planet. They have to abandon their poor choices that led to their wallets thriving as the system deteriorated. They have to cultivate a human set of priorities and embrace Kindness as a core systemic business value- rethinking what they measure when it comes to success. These baby steps will be the beginning of them leaving everyone and everything better and breaking the bad habits that have them scrambling. 

Kind organisations are places where people thrive. They are places that recognise and value the unique talent, contributions and soul of every individual. They are places teaming with trust and collaboration- where people are motivated, engaged and aligned purposefully in purposeful work- where people feel appreciated rather than exhaustion at the end of their days. Kind organisations pay people wages that allow them to thrive- not just survive. They are places where balance is mandatory and human connection is prioritised. Kind organisations care for and feed the human side of business, continuously. 

As CEOs reassess and reset their organisations, each of us can take positive action too. We can contribute to the Great Chain Reaction right now, by committing to leave everyone better at home and at work. Our actions don’t have to be grand to be meaningful. For instance, the next time a delivery driver knocks on your door, remember to smile, look them in the eye and tell them you appreciate them. Pause long enough to remember that the person standing in front of you has left their family in order to feed your belly, stock your shelves or make sure you have the medication you need to stay healthy. Before you close your door, remember that they’re showing up with your delivery so they can feed their families, stock their shelves and maybe, earn money to buy medication for someone they love to keep them healthy. Dig deep and be generous with your soul and with your wallet. Understand that every action we take has a chain reaction. Commit to Kindness. Together, we can create the greatest chain reaction that leaves everyone and everything better and heal the system of the dis-ease that landed us right here

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