Why Do So Many Superheroes Want to Change Jobs?

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Why Do So Many Superheroes Want to Change Jobs?

It is curious to me that so many of my clients want to leave their jobs for greener pastures. I was a young job seeker in New York in the eighties and I have always assumed that the whole country is always looking to sweeten their deal. But this is different. It’s not about money. Sometimes it is, but more and more people seem to want something else.

Large surveys are showing that the post pandemic job hopper is different. Not necessarily in age, demographics or industry. They’re different in motivation. The ones I talk to (small number, but anecdotes help describe broader principles) tell me about feeling isolated, not feeling trusted, feeling demeaned and de-valued by their bosses. In short, they’re telling me about how they are feeling post Covid. 

The job hoppers I work with are pretty senior people. Many are what I privately describe as Superheroes. They’re the ones we hired because of their demonstrated technical bona fides, interpersonal skills, strategic sense and ability to transform large, complex organizations. Superheroes. They’re the ones who scrambled in early March, 2020 to interpret the tea leaves from government agencies and epidemiologists. They took what they could, formed teams and developed protocols to enable people to come to work and return home safely. Many of their operations were deemed “essential” businesses. They scrambled to find enough masks to fit the CDC protocol. They figured out how to work with MS Teams, Zoom and the Google suite of products, nearly always without any help or increased bandwidth from IT. Cameras were scarce and many of their people didn’t like them (the introverts?). It took months to slowly change behavior and get people to understand what this “new normal” was and to look each other in the eye, remotely.

They struggled with holding people accountable, a challenge even when you’re in the same room with a team member. They would tell me how participants on a Zoom call would all agree that something would be delivered on an agreed upon date for review and decision. Then that date would arrive and the person responsible wasn’t even on the call. And when they were queried about the commitment they made…crickets. 

Those are just the background contextual changes that leaders faced when exerting influence and coordination downward, to their teams. They dealt with those through the usual performance management cycle. The real problem from a career perspective, and the problem that is creating the coming mass exodus, is up to their boss(es) and across to their peers. 

In companies that make stuff (manufacturing), the location you worked from during the pandemic was determined by the color of your collar. Finance, HR, Commercial were all encouraged to work from home, for safety. On the last day of the month, with hundreds of orders on hold in shipping, Commercial just couldn’t understand what the problem was. If you were in the factory, you could see the boxes piled high. If you were in your basement, the numbers on a report just didn’t say the same thing as all those boxes that those in the factory could see. And Finance was only too happy to sharpen the stick so the remote boss could stick our superman in the eye as soon as the financial performance figures of the previous month were available.

Bosses who lived in far away cities were banned from travelling to their sites. Like all of us, they too had to figure out not only how to use the new communications architecture, but had to still get results, many in very challenging business circumstances. They had their own problems with remote bosses who wanted results, regardless. Pressure mounted, whether from the Board or from the CEO and Division Presidents became like the firing pin in a pistol: They transmitted the pressure from the CEO to their VP’s, Directors and Managers without the softening and messaging they used to use pre-Covid, in a face-to-face environment. 

The stage was set for what we are about to see, the mass exodus of the people we hired before the pandemic who, at that time, were the Supermen and Wonder Women who were going to help us save the business, grow the business, expand into new product lines. Now, they’re just big disappointments. 

I once had a client, son of a Baptist Minister from one of the top companies in his industry. He was listening to an exchange among fellow leaders in one of my executive education classes. The exchange was about how much “dead wood” one of the managers in the class said she had. She was looking for help with how to get more out of them or replace them. The son of the minister turned to her and asked one of the best questions I’ve ever heard. He asked her, “Were they dead when you hired them? Or did you kill them on the job?”

Which brings me to a little bit of theory. Fred Herzberg, one of the greats in Motivational Theory developed a resilient and productive theory of job satisfaction. Two-factor theory also known as Motivation-Hygiene theory says simply that people are pulled to stay in a job or company because of the control they have to make things happen (there’s more to it, but this is all we need now). They can take a challenge, work it, involve who they want, agree on a method to solve it and execute…all without someone telling them how to do it. At the end of the day they drive home, knowing that they had a good day. And they get that feeling from the results they saw, not from someone giving them an “attagirl”. This is called intrinsic satisfaction. He called these intrinsic factors motivators.

Hygienes are all about what they sound like: having enough money to have a nice life, having a good boss who is not…well, having a good boss. 

His insight can help us in addressing the problem statement of this piece: why do the Supermen and Wonder Women of pre-Covid want to move on from their current jobs? Is it money, or is it something else, something we’ve lost and aren’t aware enough as a leadership class to really understand?

The superheroes I talk to who are asking me to look at their resumes are feeling disconnected from the person who hired them. They’re back in the office but often meetings still happen on Zoom. There is no more accidental “crash together” in hallways, elevators or even conference rooms that in the old days would spark creative cooperation. The informal part of workplace interaction seems to have dissolved. And worse, we don’t seem to know how to re-create it. 

We’re hearing daily about how associates are demanding more flexibility. In a survey of 30,000 Americans, one third said they NEVER want to return to the office, according to a study from the Working From Home Research Project. Anthoy Klotz of the Mays Business School at Texas A&M coined the phrase, the “Great Resignation,” suggesting that if we demand that employees return to the daily hassle of commuting to a nine-to-five office job, many will quit. These dire predictions seem to be more attributable to new tech work, millennial populated work environments rather than the work done in more traditional industries. 

Baby Boomers have a different point of view. Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase has been adamant about the importance of people returning to the office. James Gorman, chairman and CEO of Morgan Stanley said, “If you can go to a restaurant in New York City, you can come in to the office. By Labor Day, I’ll be very disappointed if people haven’t found their way into the office — and then we’ll have a different kind of conversation (1).

The individualistic fantasy of never returning to an office, never gathering at a water cooler seems sure to morph into a primarily in office, sometimes-work-from-home-work-style (hey, I’m a baby boomer!). But I wonder where the human need for social interaction comes from. The airlines certainly got it wrong on this. Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines, said not more than six months ago that the airlines would not recover until 2024 at the earliest and that business travel might never come back! Boy was he wrong. 

While knowing how the habits learned during remote Covid work will take time to sort out, I suspect that the world will return to the old normal with some new flexibilities built in. We’ll see. But let’s return to the Superhero story.

One social property of the new workplace interactional order (NWIO) that I’ve heard about is the tendency for leaders to ignore urgent texts. Forget about email. That is now used to make inaccurate claims of having kept people informed. Often this leads to delayed decisions which impact the business.

Another NWIO is the erosion of trust: “Why can’t you just meet the goal”? The partnership that used to result in team-based solutions and constant coaching has become, for many, isolation and recrimination. Instead of working together on a difficult challenge such as getting people to come to work, leaders are saying, “this is your problem, fix it”.

That is the world some of my clients are experiencing to different degrees today. I can’t help but think their angst is not idiosyncratic, not just keeping them awake at night. Studies are being reported weekly that speak to the result of what I think is happening. Between 20 and 40% of the labor force is fantasizing or acting on pulling the ripcord. Headhunters are salivating at the potential fees. While successful job moves are usually something to cheer, I can’t help lament the crisis of organizational confidence that this portends. Not that the leader who failed to figure out how to lead during the past year will ever skip a beat. To him, its just a new head hunter fee. Its the team below that I worry about. Because these Superheroes who are leaving will be replaced by an unknown entity. Maybe High Performing Teams are not important to their replacement. Maybe the new person will pull control up to her level and over-involve herself in decisions, regardless of what the people close to the action are saying to her.

I know that all good things come to an end. I get the “circle of life” argument. But what a failure of leadership it is to not have anticipated this. The Superheroes in our little story figured out how to hold their teams together, how to hire over Zoom and how to keep the business open by keeping people safe. 

And while they were doing this, where were their bosses? Managing up? They should have been managing culture, continuing to build High Performance Teams, giving people control over achieving outcomes. Instead they sometimes focused on their own precarious situations and forgot all they learned about modern leadership principles. 

We often resort to our old habits when under stress. Instead of asking humble questions to discern that which we don’t understand (see Edgar Schein), we resort to a 19th century style that simply tells people what to do. We go around our Superheroes to their people and tell them to do stupid things. Stupid not in an IQ sense. Stupid because they don’t reflect the complex nuances that are known from the Superhero level down. 

This, I believe is why we are about to see a mass exodus of Superheroes. They will be fine. They will take their world saving talents to a new galaxy, a new organization, a new boss. They will be searching for a motivational context that gives them what Herzberg nearly 60 years ago said they wanted all along: control over outcomes.

I am less sanguine about the leaders they will leave behind. It is amazing to me that these leaders, newly bereft of their Superheroes, almost never look to themselves for the reason. They simply rely on overpaid head hunters to go find them another Superhero. What a shame!

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