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Reversing the Great Resignation is about giving employees what they need

November 16, 2021, 7:30 PM UTC

Different people give different reasons for the Great Resignation, the mass exodus of workers during the pandemic that has left many companies short-staffed. But if you listen to business and nonprofit leaders, it quickly becomes apparent that there is also no singular cause for the phenomenon. As people increasingly leave their jobs in record numbers—4.4 million Americans, or 3% of the U.S. workforce, quit in September alone—executives aren’t just scratching their heads. They’re finding patterns, the main one being a shift in perspective: Generally, people no longer feel they should settle for work that doesn’t fulfill them. 

To understand what’s going on, the first step is to dispense with the notion “that people have been quitting en masse and then not really doing anything,” Salesforce.org EVP and COO Sam Allen said at Fortune’s CEO Initiative conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday. Allen, who recently wrote in an op-ed for Fortune that the Great Resignation may be more aptly dubbed the “Great Awakening,” said that many of those who are resigning are doing so to pursue work that is more meaningful to them. “They’re going to somewhere, they’re not running from something.” 

That may mean that they’re shifting to the nonprofit sector, or staying in the corporate world but moving to a company with values that more closely align with their own. But nonprofit leaders know firsthand that sometimes people get a bit overzealous when it comes to their passions, and they don’t always have the skills to carry them out.

“They get excited for the mission, but they come for the wrong job,” said Habitat for Humanity International CEO Jonathan Reckford. “And getting people with both technical skills and cultural fit still matters, even if they have a big heart for what you do.”

On the other hand, many people are leaving their jobs now because their skills no longer match up with what’s required, given the accelerating pace of technology brought by the pandemic. Therefore, leaders have a major opportunity to retrain their workers so that they’re better prepared to use the technology needed to do their jobs. There’s also an opportunity to give budding and seasoned leaders alike the tools to enhance their careers—and to support others in enhancing theirs.

Krishnan Rajagopalan, CEO of executive search firm and leadership consultancy Heidrick & Struggles, said he’s seen much higher demand for trainings “teaching people to be a bit more empathetic.” Empathy and listening skills are key for leaders to understand why workers are dissatisfied with their jobs, then devise and implement fixes. Salesforce.org’s Allen, who is involved with the organization’s talent development program, said he’s also noticed an increased appetite for empathy training from leaders at all levels.

Empathy is key today, said Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of nonprofit organization Feeding America, because of a shift in employee expectations. People want “transparency, authenticity, vulnerability” from their managers. Employees are “more empowered to make changes.” They “understand their power,” and for the sake of equity, they’re increasingly demanding that decisions are being “made in consultation with the people who are going to be impacted.”

But there is one way that setting a top-down tone can be a positive. Many leaders are trying to make their companies work better for overworked, overstretched employees by acknowledging burnout and taking steps to reset their cultures. Rajagopalan said Heidrick & Struggles gave employees the day off for World Mental Health Day, and that the offices will be closed around the holidays as well. Salesforce.org has experimented with weeks and even a month without meetings, during which leaders encouraged asynchronous communication (like Slack messages and emails) rather than tedious meetings whenever possible. 

Babineaux-Fontenot shared that, after a stretch of working 57 days straight, including weekends, she noticed that people were complimenting her on her commitment to the organization’s mission. But she eventually realized she wasn’t setting a sustainable example for her team. So she started taking days off, and she started talking a bit about how she was using that time for R&R such as for instance, taking her “granddog” for a walk on a day off. 

“One of the big things that I’ve had to do as a CEO,” Babineaux-Fontenot said, “is to commit to taking time off out loud.” 

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