The business community is abuzz with discussion on the Great Resignation: why it’s happening, how it’s happening, and who it’s happening to. Just ten minutes spent on LinkedIn would suggest that absolutely everyone is quitting and no one knows what to do about it.
The need for employee retention has seemingly never been greater (or more desperate), but that need itself is nothing new. For decades, leaders have searched for fixes to this expensive problem and they’ve placed their bets on everything from organization changes to management courses to, more recently, free beer, snacks and unlimited paid time off.
The common thread here? We’re looking in the wrong places to solve our problems.
What’s needed is a dramatic change in the behaviors that leaders demonstrate, one that comes from inside ourselves. When leaders demonstrate natural human behaviors—curiosity, resilience, authenticity, compassion, and playfulness—they take the first step in creating a new culture. We call these, in our book, The Five Lost Superpowers and they hide in each one of us, unused in the modern working world, slowly withering the further we get from our childhoods.
When we resurface these qualities within ourselves, we demonstrate to our employees that it’s safe for us all to explore our own superpowers, to be silly, to learn and fail, to be authentically ourselves. We feel like more than just cogs in a wheel, we feel human. We thrive.
Curiosity is our fast-pass to learning about things, situations, people, and everything else that exists in a rapidly changing world. Curiosity keeps us from thinking we have all the answers and opens us up to innovation, connection, and imagination.
Children are fantastic at asking questions: Why is the sky blue? Why does my belly button look like that? Why do I have to eat peas? Yet as we age, we are rewarded for our answers, not our questions. We start to fear not being right, not knowing. What we should fear more is not asking good questions. Why? These are the keys to thinking more broadly and to finding new ways of doing, solving, and approaching the world.
When leaders embrace curiosity about their people—what matters to them, what drives them, what they need—their people feel seen, understood, and valued. Data clearly shows that these are almost universally what people want more of at work. When leaders demonstrate professional curiosity, they unleash it in the people around them too, feeding those needs and building culture, innovative ideas, and solutions along the way.
We do our best work and experience the most ease when we can show up as our authentic selves. For many different people to thrive, leaders have to encourage and accept a variety of work and communication styles. It’s important to notice how narrowly defined the behaviors and outcomes that get rewarded are in any culture. Generating a culture of authenticity often includes expanding the definition of how something “should” be and who gets rewarded for what they bring to the table.
We experience others as authentic when we feel they are being truthful in what they say and in how they show up. As leaders, sharing what is hard, what is uncertain, and what you hope for can build trust and connection. People sense they can trust you because you are willing to be vulnerable by sharing more of yourself and where things stand.
People need role models to demonstrate that imperfection is OK, that we all have hard days and sometimes we get it wrong—but from that, we grow. When leaders show up authentically or experiment with what that means for them, it gives everyone else permission to do the same.
Resilience is something we typically learn from our environments. It’s that innate ability we have to keep on going despite adversity. Our resilience is strengthened when we are given freedom to try, fail, and try again. The more we try things, the more we grow. Yet if we’re only rewarded for getting something right, we lose sight of the value of our experiences and our resilience suffers.
When children are learning to walk, they fall and get back up, every time. But we lose that resilience when authority or too much caution intervenes. If obstacles are knocked over before we can experience them, or we don’t explore something because of perceived risk, we never exercise resilience or learn that the world doesn’t end if we fail.
Model resilience to your team by focusing on your locus of control and where you have agency. Show them that you fail and it’s OK. The more your people feel free to fail and try again, the happier and more inventive your team will be.
Compassion is understanding the perspectives and viewpoints of people unlike you. It’s also appreciating that we all need and want different things. As children we offer everyone our compassion, yet as we age, we develop boundaries around who deserves our compassion. We often limit it to either the people “in our group” or those who we can somehow relate to.
A kindergarten student will congratulate an opponent on a goal scored because they did a great job. Only five years later, a fifth grader will stomp the ground and say “that kid’s a cheat!”
Compassion is difficult. None of us feel we receive enough of it, and it requires time spent. But it’s something you desperately need to schedule—your employees require it. So set up compassionate processes and systems where people can thrive, and establish meaningful goals that take into account not just what you or shareholders are doing, thinking, and feeling, but what those with other viewpoints might need to become successful.
People love fun and we naturally seek it in its myriad forms. Joy, levity, hilarity, cheekiness, and other types of fun hold in common the root of playfulness. They also demonstrate that playfulness can take different forms appropriate to the situation. We know not to look for the fun of a roller coaster when we enter the boardroom, but if a workplace isn’t embracing any type of playfulness, it’s likely not a place the employees will really enjoy.
The good things that make us human exist inside unstructured play, but we forget this fact because we’re outcome-oriented. We spend so much of our time working on accomplishing goals that play takes a backseat. This “always-on” mode doesn’t result in better work. Instead, it leads to burnout, lack of sleep, and depression.
As a leader, you can incorporate playfulness by rewarding creativity for creativity’s sake and by scheduling time where people can talk freely, without the boundaries of questions or expectations. Playfulness isn’t about ping pong tables. It’s about rewarding spontaneous, creative, and imaginative thinking and behaviors.
Reinvent Your Workplace
Businesses need smart, innovative employees to come up with big, broad solutions for complex problems and change. That’s no secret. But to get that, they must create an environment where their people feel safe to do so. We’ve created organizations with narrow focus and boundaries to creativity, where employees carry fear or concern, and a limited sense of possibility.
The guardrails placed on innovation, creativity, and problem solving also make it harder for people to connect, so we focus on the bonds that form when people “go through hell” together. Yet we’re blind to the possibilities of what might happen when people accomplish things together in the dynamic, thriving environment of The Five Lost Superpowers.
Every superpower—curiosity, resilience, authenticity, compassion, and playfulness—nurtures and attends to what employees are missing. Embracing and modeling them yourself will help eliminate the need for your employees to look for work elsewhere.
John Reid is the president and founder of the JMReid Group, a corporate training and facilitation company. Corena Chase is an executive coach and founder of Chase Performance Strategies. The pair cowrote, with Andrew Reid and Lynae Steinhagen, The Five Lost Superpowers: Why We Lose Them and How to Get Them Back.