To stop the Great Resignation, we must fight dehumanization at work

November 18, 2021, 5:44 PM UTC
Disillusioned by employer-employee dynamics in the West, Rasmus Hougaard quit everything and travelled to Nepal.
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This “Great Resignation”, or as more optimistic voices like to call it the “Great Reevaluation”, is in many ways a necessary correction of the labor market.

But wages and benefits aren’t the only aspects of work that are due for a changeup. As the old adage goes, “people don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” And the corporate leadership playbook, which since the 1980s has prioritized the ends but not the means, is due for a serious upgrade.

Early on in my career, I became disillusioned with my work and overall approach to life. I especially was tired of what we would call the Western philosophical view of the employer-employee dynamic. High anxiety, daily stress, and the constant need to prove oneself in order to be “good” at your job were just things I did not want to adhere to. So, I quit my job, dropped everything, and traveled to Nepal. I went as far away as I could, both literally and figuratively, to learn from local Nepalese meditation masters. I quickly discovered that their approach to everyday life, from mundane occurrences to unexpected events, could be applied to radically improve the modern workplace. 

I’ve found that the dehumanization of work has been the biggest factor in creating unhappy and disengaged employees. It begins and ends with leadership driving a corporate culture that fails to recognize its workforce as people first, producers second.

So how do we course correct? It starts with embracing what I like to call caring candor.

In many ways, this approach is a correction of the “radical candor” championed by Silicon Valley in the last decade.  Embracing a philosophy of caring candor, that delivers tough truths with a focus on how the truth will land, can benefit everyone. Research conducted by my company, Potential Project, has found that leaders that rate themselves high on compassion report lower levels of stress by 66%. They are also 14% more efficient and 200% less likely to quit their jobs, a major benefit in the current labor market.

Research has shown that when we practice compassion toward another person, our brain releases a flood of dopamine, the “feel-good hormone” and oxytocin, the “love hormone.” Together these neurotransmitters make us feel connected to each other and help us engage in even more positive behaviors.

In other words, the neuro-reward we feel when we show compassion to our colleagues through actions like helpful coaching can be addictive. The more we do it, the easier it becomes, and the happier we feel.

For the individual leader who is often thrust into more situations requiring tough decision making, the brain’s natural inclination toward compassion is often at odds with the ego’s natural desire for self-preservation. This makes it easier for leaders to disengage when tasked with the “necessary evils” of their job, such as giving a harsh performance review or having to lay someone off. Research shows that when leaders approach performing necessary evils in a detached way, viewing people as names on a list, they experience heightened stressors, including feelings of stigmatization and emotional exhaustion. But, if leaders choose to treat people with dignity, even while performing necessary evils, it not only reduces negative feelings but increases positive feelings of self-worth.

In action, this means approaching candid conversations from a place of compassion, acknowledging what the individual on the receiving end is going through, and taking steps to advocate for them moving forward. Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky embodied this idea when he had to lead the company’s layoff of 1,900 employees in the spring of 2020. In a public letter he outlined the decision-making process, directly expressed compassion to those impacted, and apologized for the hurt the decision caused. In addition to a generous severance package, the company considered the day-to-day impact the layoffs could have and went so far as to let individuals keep their laptops and connect them to programs designed to help them find a new job.

As businesses continue to grapple with what our “new normal” could look like, embracing compassion as a focal point within a company culture is in many ways a return to the way humans were designed to operate. Evolutionary biologists have theorized that while genetically we may have adapted through the survival of the fittest, culturally our societies have flourished due to our amazing abilities to care for one another. When it comes to the workplace and employee retention, employee job satisfaction increases 34% and burnout rates decrease by 22% when leaders exhibit and demonstrate compassion.

At a time when corporate culture is faced with a crisis, perhaps we should revert to relying on this distinctly human strength.

Rasmus Hougaard is the CEO and founder of Potential Project and co-author of the upcoming book “Compassionate Leadership: How to do Hard Things a Human Way” to be published in January 2022 by HBR Press.

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