The Great Resignation’s culture conundrum

A man walks out a door
Policies and procedures can provide structure, but it's the unwritten rules that make people leave or stay—and every organization has them.
Gabrielle Lurie—San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers/Getty Images

Money can’t buy loyalty. It just rents it for a while. If employers believe that higher wages alone can stop the Great Resignation as people quit their jobs at the highest rates on record, they’re probably in for a disappointment.

As bosses look for answers, culture is at the forefront—and the stakes are higher these days for almost every company on the planet. We’ve witnessed seismic shifts across the workscape, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Industrial Revolution. We’ve gone from subways and freeways to home office bedrooms and kitchen table desks. Liberating, but also isolating.

Culture can be the missing link. Unfortunately, it can also be a bit of a conundrum.

Ask six people to define culture and you’ll probably get 12 different answers. Some say it’s mission and values. For others, it’s Ping-Pong tables and work attire. However, culture really boils down to just one definition: It’s how things get done.

Culture will vary, company to company, industry to industry. It’s never one-size-fits-all. Culture needs to be lived, breathed, and experienced every day.

The culture quandary

Having the right culture, at the right time, and with the right people can elude many companies. Often, it’s more art than science. In a survey our firm conducted, nearly three-quarters of executives described culture as being extremely important to organizational performance. Yet, only a third said that their culture was fully aligned with their business strategy!

We need to ask ourselves: How do we continue to empower people? How do we interact with and help each other? What should collaboration look like? How will the best ideas emerge? Do we need to be in physical proximity so that the happenstance of meeting in the hallway or getting coffee can spark insightful conversations? Or can we replicate that in other ways?

Leading by example

The leader plays a disproportionately large role: Culture starts at the top, where it is created and shaped. Given all we’ve been through over the past few years, leading is all about “grace”—that inner voice that constantly whispers, “It’s not about you.”

When leaders make others’ success their priority, they help define and differentiate the culture. That’s why our Korn Ferry Institute describes leaders as having two core roles today. First, they are the culture champions: the role models who embody the mindset, beliefs, and desired behaviors. Second, they are the culture architects who make sure that the right structures are in place to support those desired behaviors. Leading by word and by example can ensure that a healthy, inclusive culture takes root and grows.

The culture fit factor

We all know the questions people ask as they weigh whether to stay in their current jobs or pursue new opportunities: “What is it like to work there? What’s the culture like? What are the people like?”

What they’re really asking (in many different ways) is simply: “How will I fit in?”

We’re all vulnerable, we all have insecurities. We want to be loved, to belong, and to be part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s culture that opens the door and reassures people, “You matter, you make a difference, you belong here.”

The unwritten rules

Policies and procedures certainly have their place as an important way for guiding people to come together as a society, a community, or an organization. But these structures alone do not adequately describe culture. For that, we must look to the unwritten rules—and every organization has them.

It’s “code” for how things really get done. For example, there’s the entrepreneurial culture where it’s all about performance, and the norm is to “ask forgiveness, not permission.” Other places are far more hierarchical. But within every company, there are informal networks and unwritten rules that will never be found in any employee handbook.

Culture should be on the walls and in the halls and, most importantly, in the hearts and minds of every employee. Elusive to define, powerful when deeply felt, it is best experienced together. Indeed, it may be the difference between people staying or going.

Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn Ferry, a global organizational consulting firm with nearly 10,000 colleagues. His latest book is The 5 Graces of Life and Leadership, which captures the insights, imagery, and emotions of the human side of leadership required in the new world of work.

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