Why we’re actually witnessing ‘The Great Aspiration’

You can’t look at an HR journal right now without hearing a lot about the so-called ‘Great Resignation’. Sure, people are indeed resigning. But the question HRDs need to ask themselves is why? It’s my view people aren’t really resigning first; rather they ‘aspiring’ first – and it’s a subtle difference. What we’re actually witnessing is the ‘Great Aspiration’.

It’s not difficult to understand why. Growth is our default setting, and learning is the oxygen of human growth. Psychologists tell us that after every great period of stress [and we’re talking about the coronavirus pandemic here], there follows a period of tremendous desire for growth.

What’s happened during the pandemic is that people have been thrown off their pre-pandemic growth curves, and are wanting a new, reset growth stage. Recent research by Egon Zehnder shows that 80% of CEOs strongly agree that they need to transform ‘themselves’ as well as their organisations – up from just 26% pre-pandemic. What research like this is suggesting is that people are rightly asking themselves whether their current growth stage can be met by staying where they are, or whether it’s time to move on.

So HRDs would be wise to understand the dynamics of people’s learning curves in order to manage (and maybe predict) their short-term retention problems.

The three phases of learning

Learning is best thought of as having three phases:  a launch phase (where people are in roles that require lots of adaption and time to settle into them); a sweet spot phase (where things are easier but not too easy) and finally a mastery phase. This is where people have figured their role out, and they can quite easily become bored.

The best HR leaders will be those that establish where people in their organisation are in terms of their growth curves.

People in the sweet spot need focus – because they are capable people, and they’ll get lots of other people making demands on them because of it. Those in the mastery phase – if left unattended for too long – will metaphorically ‘die.’ They need to be given new challenges.

Based on our research, a starting point ratio organisations should try to aim for is having 20% of their people in the launch phase; 60% in a sweet spot phase and 20% in the mastery phase. But it’s all about creating an ‘ecosystem’, and the organisation establishing for itself what the best ratios are for them.

HR leaders must deal with each learning phase

The point is, leaders need to understand what growth looks like in order to allow others to grow too.

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The same applies in recruitment too. Will companies simply be hiring people that are already in sweet spot or mastery phases – people that will likely cause retention issues sooner rather than later? Are there the HR right processes in place for people in these phases to be able raise their hands, and ask their managers for new challenges? If there isn’t, they are likely to get bored and want to leave.

Are managers also being properly equipped by HR to deal with those in the launch phase of their learning? The launch phase is a crucial moment for staff, but will managers demonstrate that they value people’s inexperience? It’s vital that they do, because this sends out the message that there is support for staff and the new challenges they are facing.

Will staff be given the training, support, and development they need that recognizes they are potentially dealing with the cognitive overload that dealing with a new job, or having new responsibilities brings? Again, the answer is they must be.

It’s clear to me that the only way organisations can optimize their growth is by looking at the mix of people and the learning curves they are on in their business. By learning this they have a way of having proper conversations about recruitment and retention.

So, let’s acknowledge that people want to aspire. They want to grow, and they want to be able to develop.

Let’s not try and avoid resignation, but try instead to engender aspiration.

Whitney Johnson is CEO of the tech-enabled talent development company Disruption Advisors, and one of the 50 leading business thinkers in the world as named by Thinkers50. She is an award-winning author, a regular keynote speaker, and a frequent lecturer for Harvard Business School’s Corporate Learning. A frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and MIT Sloan Management Review, Johnson is author of several top-selling books including Disrupt Yourself and Build an A Team. Her latest book is Smart Growth: How to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company. She is also the host of the popular Disrupt Yourself podcast, with guests including Brené Brown, Simon Sinek, Susan Cain, and General Stanley McChrystal. You can follow her on Twitter at @johnsonwhitney.

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