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A Fork in the Road

Workplace Culture

August 24, 2022

I like to think about life in terms of seasons. Some seasons are good, and some bad. Some seasons are easy, and some difficult. Though each season is different, they all have one thing in common. Eventually, the season shall pass and quickly be replaced by a new one.

Just as we go through seasons as individuals and families, so too do we experience seasons as a society. Culture, politics, economy, technology and innovation all play roles as our society navigates in, through and out of seasons. In some ways, the 2010s decade was a season in and of itself. It began on the heels of the Great Financial Crisis, which sent shock waves through the housing, job and stock markets. Many people had faced significant consequences of this sudden and significant downturn and were just starting to adjust to the “new normal” and begin to re-establish their foundation. Little did we know that this would be a 10-year season of up, up and more up. The housing market, the job market, the stock market … each slowly notching their way in a positive trajectory. In hindsight, I think we collectively took it for granted. That “new normal” eventually became, well, “normal.” We settled into our careers, our lifestyles and lives. Times were good!

A Polarization of People

Enter 2020. A new decade brought on a new season, and wow did it enter with a fury. It feels like we’ve experienced a decade already this decade … and it’s been less than three years! As we work our way through the back half of 2022, we’re faced with labor shortages, a down stock market, global supply shortages, decades-high inflation, international military conflict and several other ingredients creating a whole lot of uncertainty.

We’d like to dismiss all this and pretend it doesn’t impact us or our businesses but doing so is short-sighted and dangerous. Each of these things has some level of impact on each of us. After all, we live in the most connected society the world has ever seen. Life is hitting us hard, and considering we spend half our waking hours at work, these things are inevitably impacting how, why and where we work.

As I discussed in my previous article, I believe the Great Resignation is far deeper than the notion of people simply not wanting to work. It’s, in part, a culmination of the factors outlined above. This impacts everyone differently, but there seems to be a polarization in how people react.

On one side, there’s a group of people who are clinging harder than ever to their current jobs. They may like their job … or hate it. Regardless, the fear of even more chaos in their life is leading them to a place where they are desperate to maintain their employment status. After all, I think many of us have some level of PTSD after what happened during the Great Financial Crisis. I was recently having drinks with some former colleagues whom I worked alongside when the Great Financial Crisis struck our industry. We shared stories and memories (ranging from bad to terrible) but were able to laugh about that season all these years later. However, embedded in the middle of this conversation was a unanimous acknowledgment of how that experience undoubtedly changed each of us forever.

For this group of people desperate to maintain their jobs, we as leaders can take advantage of their fear or cultivate it into something positive. If we treat our employees in a way that says, “I dare you to leave,” it will foster resentment and mediocre-at-best performance. The alternative is to drive culture, make them feel seen and heard and help them unleash their best work yet. Though some may feel like they are staying put out of necessity, the opportunity exists to create engagement that will last long after this difficult season passes.

The other group, at the proverbial fork in the road, smells opportunity. Everyone seems to be hiring and job openings are abundant. Some of these people, primarily seeking meaning and fulfillment, have a golden opportunity to reposition themselves into a career that better matches their skills and passions. This is a huge win for everyone involved.

However, there’s a shadow side to this “opportunity.” Labor shortages and inflation have shined the light on abundant financial propositions for people who possess skills and experience. Compound that with the introduction of 100% work-from-home positions, and there’s more competition than ever. You may be one of a handful of tech companies in your city, but all of a sudden you’re competing with the likes of Google, Apple and Amazon for talent. This story isn’t isolated to tech companies, as most industries have their own version of it. As a basketball coach once told me, “no matter how fast you are, there’s always someone faster.” Competition is abundant! There’s a large segment of the “smells an opportunity” crowd who are shopping for opportunities based primarily (or solely) on dollars. Larger salaries, richer bonuses and more perks. For better or worse, current market conditions indicate they WILL find a better compensation package somewhere out there.

A Better Way

While it’s easy to begrudge the fact people will ultimately leave jobs over a more attractive financial package elsewhere, you can take solace in knowing they will likely do the same thing to the next company when an even shinier object presents itself.

We as leaders have a choice to make. We can try to buy the (temporary) loyalty of these folks, or we can aim our focus elsewhere. As I walk alongside business owners, the correct choice continues to become increasingly clearer. Yes, we need to pay people fairly … or better. But that’s just the start. We need to create a culture where each person buys into the broader mission. We need to create a culture where our team understands how their contributions make a difference to the whole. We need to create a culture where the employee at the bottom is valued as much as the one at the top. We need to create a culture where we treat our team as humans first and employees second.

Just like every other season, this one too shall pass. When it does, how we as leaders established and perpetuated culture with our teams in this season will bear the appropriate fruit in the coming season. Some organizations will be positioned to thrive, while others will have a mess to clean up. As leaders, perhaps this is the fork in our road.

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Travis Shelton

Travis Shelton is the host of the Meaning Over Money podcast, speaker and professional financial coach, helping families and businesses navigate the tension between the world's way and a better way. He works with a wide range of clients who are ready to redefine the role money plays in their life. Listen to his podcast on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.