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How Are You Going to Handle “The Great Discontent?”

By Jonathan Bates


Gallup consultants Vipula Gandhi and Jennifer Robison coined the term not long ago in an article called “The ‘Great Resignation’ is Really the ‘Great Discontent.'” They hit the nail right on the head.

They focused on the root cause of why so many employees are looking out the door and choosing to leave your company. And, it’s your best talent with their eyes outward. Do you really want to lose them?

What are you going to do to deal with the “Great Discontent?” Read on.

The Facts (and Costs) Speak for Themselves

You have seen the numbers on what turnover costs, I don’t have to quote them here. Suffice to say that preventing the direct costs of recruiting and on-boarding as well as the absent productivity and opportunity cost inherent in losing key talent impacts your business or mission. But, what can you do about it?

What They Don’t Know Hurts You

Many employees are exhausted, burned out and wanting a change from the whatever the status quo may be. They just know they need things to be different. Their first thought is to look for another job. They aren’t sure what it will be, they just know they want something new.

This means they may jump without knowing what they really want and why they should actually make the change. The “shiny object” of a new job and a new organization is overwhelmingly attractive. Unless they are very self-aware, it’s likely they are choosing for the wrong reasons and leaving your company when they could have stayed and been satisfied… if only they knew what they really were seeking.

Are You Willing to Act?

With the disruption and angst caused by the turbulence in the labor market, many leaders do one of two things: they throw money at the employee (if they can) or they throw up their hands and say “There’s nothing I can do!”

This is true, unless you can think about it more creatively and in a more individualized way.

The thing is, if they stay for money they will leave for money, now or in the future. You need to anchor them in a more substantive way. All the money in the world only goes so far. In addition, they think “Why weren’t you paying me this before if I’m that valuable?” Good for morale, eh?

You can take substantive action if you are willing.

Are They ‘Talent’ or Talented Individuals?

Here’s the big secret… your employees are individuals who need to be treated individually. So often, leaders look for broad-brush solutions that are efficient and scalable but leave employees feeling that you can’t see them as an individual. Think implementing broad new benefits or policies across the board.

“Talent” doesn’t leave your organization, “individuals” do… talented individuals. Why are you treating them like a herd?

There’s a Core Solution

When you begin to look at your employees individually, you realize that each person has a set of personal Core Needs that motivate, engage, satisfy and fulfill them.

Core Needs are factors like achievement, collaboration, learning, being part of something bigger, connection, challenge, contribution and the like. There are 100 or more of these factors. People have between 8-20 of these ‘gas tanks’ that power them around and personal criteria for getting each of them filled.

These represent the types of experiences people need to have from time to time to feel energized, engaged and fulfilled. How well these Core Needs are fulfilled at your organization keeps employees productive, performing and happy. You can’t afford to pay people enough to stay if their Core Needs are being unmet.

If you want to keep them, find out what their unique combination of Core Needs is and look at how you can help them ‘fill their tanks.”

Meeting Them at Their Core Needs

An employee with a Core Need for “accomplishment” might be offered a project or responsibility that they can ‘sink their teeth into’ and make things happen. Check the box on “accomplishment.” So, you offer them what you think is the perfect opportunity of running an initiative that would benefit the department and they aren’t really interested. What gives?

It’s the combination of their Core Needs that satisfies the individual. For instance, an employee with Core Needs of “accomplishment,” “independence” and “having a big impact” is going to be attracted to a different kind of assignment than one who has “accomplishment,” “collaboration” and “learning” among their Core Needs.

The wrong kind of accomplishment is as de-motivating as no accomplishment at all.

Behavioral assessments are great and can give you generalized information about motivational drives. Someone with a high drive for dominance, for example, is going to want to take on greater responsibility, but what kind of responsibility. Core Needs work gives that next level of insight.

When you start seeing your employees as individuals with a unique combination of Core Needs, you have the foundation for high performance, energized engagement, and strong loyalty. Absent this understanding, you are ‘shooting in the dark’ in attempting to retain them.

Redemption from the Brink of Burnout

One of the big drivers of the ‘discontent’ is burnout. The recent history of the pandemic, economic upheaval, social justice and global issues have made the ‘gas tanks’ low for many people. Very low ‘gas tanks’ equal “burnout.”

For example, for people with Core Needs for “connection,” “collaboration” and “meaningful communication,” Zoom just doesn’t cut it. Perhaps you are one of these people. Even a hybrid workplace with distancing and masks doesn’t quite fill the bill. It’s unlikely to change anytime soon. So, what can you do about it?

The answer is to put enough into your ‘gas tanks’ to get you through until things change. You may not have it filled to the brim, but you can make it through the day.

The beauty of this is that you can add to your tanks using different experiences than the usual ones. Especially not those that are unavailable at the moment.

If you can’t see family, friends and colleagues face to face right now, think about what you experience when together… perhaps a feeling of warmth, curiosity, being grounded and feeling trusted.

Then ask yourself, “What is something I can do in the next few days that gives me a feeling of warmth, grounding, trust and really intrigues me?” The answer might surprise you. It might be something like, “I feel that way when my dog Tyler and I go for a walk and have an adventure in a new place. It’s really fun for both of us.” It’s not the same as getting big hugs from your faraway best friends, but it will get your through the afternoon.

Being creative with how you get your Core Needs met brings you back from the brink.

Expand Your Ideas About Engagement

Gallup’s Q12 is great. But I invite to think of true employee engagement as employees getting their Core Needs met. Employees thrive when their tanks are full.

Your strategy for employee engagement should be to provide an environment (and management support) where employees can work in a way that gets their Core Needs fulfilled.

Do you have to roll out an expensive new benefits program? Maybe. Could you gain employee engagement by focusing on their Core Needs? Definitely.

Check out my blog post, “Employee Engagement is Not What You Think” for more on this.

Finding and Creating Fit

Like many organizations, you are probably seeking employees that fit your culture. And, of course, you are looking for an employee’s suitability and fit for their role.

The standard bearers for culture fit are values. Are an organization’s and employees’ values aligned and compatible? I would suggest that values alone do not signal a cultural fit for an employee. Core Needs reflect the way an employee’s values are lived. There is not always a match.

For example, organizations and employees frequently value “integrity.” It’s a great, high-minded ideal. But how is that integrity lived out in practice? An employee who values integrity and has related Core Needs of “honest communications,” “partnership” and “consistency” may find themselves at odds in an organization focused only on “doing what you said you would do” as their brand of integrity.

Sometimes fit with a role can be tweaked to meet the employee’s Core Needs better. Perhaps there can be an adaptation of how a particular responsibility is accomplished. Or, perhaps there is a special project that could provide some ‘gas to the tanks.’

For instance, an employee who works in a chaotic environment and has Core Needs of “individual reflection” and “change of scenery” might be permitted to be the team member who twice daily retrieves mail and messages from the adjacent building – 20 minutes of respite and diversion twice a day recharging their battery. Plus, the job gets done.

There are the circumstances where adaptation and creativity just aren’t sufficient to meet an employee’s particular combination of Core Needs even if they have the right knowledge, skills and expertise. In this case, they aren’t a right fit for that role at your organization (even if they had a similar role in another organization). You need to find them a more suitable role or they may need to find a more suitable organization to work for.

Better to make a change before insufficient performance or burnout sets in.

Provide a Foundation for Career Development

Employees are clamoring for support for their careers. But how will they make career decisions that are right for them if they aren’t clear on their Core Needs? The foundation of all career development and career paths is understanding your Core Needs. Otherwise, you make unfulfilling decisions.

Some employees seek to be promoted to management or executive roles because they think that’s what they should do. Yet, when you look at their Core Needs, they may have a definite mismatch for what it takes to be a people manager or to lead strategically (preferring to remain in the details). They become promoted to their highest level of misery.

A top global software company in Silicon Valley was worried about losing female senior engineering managers (already a rarity in the tech industry). The problem was that they were ambitious, high performers who wanted to progress  and didn’t necessarily want their boss’ jobs (and the bosses weren’t going anywhere anyway).

So, they were looking outside the company for their next career step. After attending a Core Needs workshop, the most common remark was “I didn’t think I had any options left here, but now that I understand my Core Needs, I see that there are a number of things I could do here that I would find fulfilling.” They stayed.

Open Their Eyes

The biggest mistake you can make is to keep your employees in the dark about their Core Needs. Some short-sighted managers think “If they know their Core Needs, they’ll leave us.” I would suggest that knowing their Core Needs is the only way to get them to remain.

If you have so little confidence that you can meet your employees’ Core Needs if they know them, you need to re-think your work environment. And, those that separate are probably the ones who aren’t well suited to your organization anyway. That’s a win-win.

Be Creative and Flexible

Once you know an employee’s Core Needs, take a look at their job design and see if there are tweaks you can make to make their Core Needs better fulfilled. It doesn’t even have to cost money, just creativity and flexibility.

For example, an employee who has Core Needs of “accomplishment” and “completion” who is working on a never-ending project will end up frustrated and unsatisfied. Why not adjust their work stream to include some finite small projects that can easily be “tied up with a bow” in short order?  Fill ‘er up, thank you!

Educate Managers to Do Their Part

The pivotal role in helping employees get their Core Needs met is their immediate manager. Who else is in a position to know them well enough and be creative about the job design and working conditions?

Employees don’t leave companies. Employees leave managers who don’t try to support them in getting them get their Core Needs met. If your managers don’t know how to coach employees in this way, get them some training.

Make a Commitment to Fulfillment

The sum total of this discussion is this… give your employees the gift of understanding of their Core Needs and work with them to find options to get them met. You’ll go a long way to stem the “Great Resignation” and the Great Discontent.” It’s up to you.







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