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Overhyped: The Not-So-Great Resignation

Why mass quitting is unlikely as the decision context changes.

Key points

  • Many reports of the "Great Resignation" have circulated, panicking employers and fueling employees.
  • This has not materialized at the scale expected, with momentum and motivation now slowing.
  • Employers can stop panicking, as most employees are unlikely to resign in mass volumes.
Nuala Walsh
Source: Nuala Walsh

For the last year, stories have spread about the so-called "Great Resignation." But it hasn’t materialized at the scale expected and is unlikely to now. New research recently made headlines—a global Microsoft survey found that 41% of workers were considering leaving their jobs within six months, confirmed by a McKinsey report.

Despite the data, stated intention to quit is unlikely to convert into mass resignation. The context has changed. Momentum has stalled. And motivational factors are more likely to mitigate this quitting decision. Predictions of sustained resignation ignore human decision-making—and are a form of unintended fake news.

Quitting Intention Is Real But Suggestible

For some, the desire to quit is real. Pay and flexibility remain leading drivers. The highest intentionality was recorded in India at 60%. In the U.S., the voluntary departure rate is 20% higher than pre-pandemic. The labor market is shifting, demand is rising for flexible workstyles, and the market is hot in selected industry sectors. Airlines and hospitality are suffering major skill shortages, sparked by pandemic-related redundancies rather than resignations.

Hype is fuelled by contagion and the power of suggestion. The more we read and hear about the "Great Resignation," the more we believe it to be true—that’s the mere exposure effect played out in an organizational context. Like advertising, we believe what’s repeated. Most of your friends are probably still in the same job.

People jump onto bandwagons perceived to have momentum. Employees don’t want to miss out on better-paid opportunities. But something fundamental has changed—the economy—and that affects decision-making.

A New Decision Context

Four months ago, a global provider of employment services Randstad claimed the "Great Resignation" was here to stay. Their opinion has now shifted, advising Bloomberg that resignations are slowing amid inflationary pressures.

What’s more, McKinsey finds the level of intention to quit has not changed since 2021. It’s not rising—it has leveled off. And at 60%, the vast majority of employees aren’t thinking about quitting. The "Great Resignation" has become the great adaptation to a new reality.

Quitting is a high-involvement decision that rarely happens spontaneously. Few resign on impulse. Few can afford the luxury. Quitting requires an internal or external trigger. The pandemic provided this one-off shock. Today, that driver is more likely to be 40-year-high inflation, consumer sentiment, and rising prices.

Affordability will prevent many career intentions from being exercised. Retirement may be deferred, not accelerated, as people prioritize income security. Typically, we prefer stability during uncertainty, making employees less likely to quit. Although talented employees may find better opportunities, others will tolerate their conditions. Employers needn’t panic as most employees are unlikely to herd to the exits.

3 Factors Explain the Myth of Mass Resignation

Beyond economic motivations, three psychological reasons explain why people don’t resign and point to a tapering of momentum: the intention-behavior gap; shifting preferences; and indecision. The go/stay decision starts with intention followed by commitment and actual resignation. Each is mitigated.

1. Intention vs. Behavior

How often have you said you’re leaving your job and then stayed? We often say what we don’t mean. Survey responses are typically filled with bias, half-truths, and apathy, reflecting a moment in time. Responses can reflect wishful thinking rather than concrete plans. Intention doesn’t predict action. Psychologists call this the intention-behavior gap. New Year’s resolutions don’t last—the spirit is strong but the flesh is weak.

What’s more, as cognitive misers, busy employees like easy decisions. Moving jobs is hard. CVs and applications are time-consuming. Rejection is painful. And competition escalates when well-paid jobs are available. The reward needs a strong motivational pull to counteract the physical and mental effort of the search process. Enthusiasm wanes. And preferences shift.

2. Shifting Employee Preferences

The 41% stated intention to quit is unlikely to convert into 41% departures. Is your taste in clothes or hairstyles the same as in your teenage years? Hopefully not. Preferences change. People jilt partners at the altar. Boards dispose of once-prized businesses. Course-correcting candidates ghost employers. Equally, preferences to leave managers shift. Counter-offers are routinely accepted. It’s costly to base HR strategy on intentionality without cross-checking associated drivers.

Joanna Kosinska/Unsplash
Source: Joanna Kosinska/Unsplash

Human preferences also reverse. In an experiment, participants pre-selected snacks for immediate and future consumption. For immediate consumption, 70% chose chocolate and 30% chose fruit. But when pre-selecting for a week later, this reversed—74% of participants chose fruit and 26% chose chocolate.

Unconsciously, people use their current emotions to predict how they’ll feel in the future. It’s a false contrast. Just as the jilted lover thinks they’ll be miserable forever, departing employees think they’ll be happier in another company. This isn’t necessarily true. A Joblist report found that 26% of quitters regretted their decision. Science and reality repeatedly show we don’t accurately predict our emotions.

3. The Weight of Indecision

And how decisive are you? Google searches indicate that 575 million people can’t decide whether to leave their job or not—that’s a lot of hidden indecision. Even though an employee might state a desire to change jobs, at the point of execution, uncertainty and chronic anxiety can be unsettling. When the moment comes to submit a letter and leave colleagues, the preference for the status quo and familiar relationships can be overwhelming. During my career, I received a job offer yet couldn’t decide. The company eventually rescinded the offer. Many sit on the fence and procrastinate, fearing the wrong decision.

Multiple factors explain why we can’t decide. A range of simple science-based methods exist to shift indecision including mental flexibility and the ability to regulate emotions.

Ultimately, a certain population will always want to resign, retire, or shift careers. Supply and demand issues will always exist. As an employee, don’t blindly accept the "Great Resignation" hype. If you follow the invisible herd, you may end up disadvantaged. As an employer, myths quickly become facts. Address early signals of discontent to mitigate a trend or contagious reality.

People stay where they feel valued. A new psychological contract is required. It’s a simple solution to prevent future resignations.

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