This is no secret: employees at all levels are leaving for new opportunities. And the Great Reshuffle is expected to continue as a quarter of American workers say they plan to quit their job in the next 12 months, according to a recent CareerArc-Harris poll.
But while the Great Reshuffle dominates headlines, there is an open secret few even think about — the Great Pause.
“The Great Pause is the void created immediately after news hits of a business leader’s departure,” said Kelli Amerine, managing director, Lumevity. “The whispers, video calls, and chat messages among the remaining workforce can lead to a significant drag on morale and productivity.”
Senior leaders often ignore the Great Pause at their peril.
When uncertainty enters
When a leader leaves, uncertainty enters — causing cognitive dissonance across the organization.
“Employees who looked to the leader for guidance may question whether they are still a cultural fit at the organization,” said Amerine, who brings 25 years of executive-level experience focused on leading change management for organizations and critical projects, pioneering creative methods for achieving employee engagement and high adoption rates for large-scale, complex change programs.
Former colleagues and managers may worry about business continuity. If it’s a C-Suite departure, the potential company-wide dissonance is even greater — with an organization’s current and future business outlook called into doubt.
Negative effects for those reporting to a vacant leadership position can include:
- Slowing down while waiting for direction or permission to do something.
- Lacking the psychological safety to act with speed and urgency.
- Adopting a wait-and-see or prove-it mindset that erodes an existing growth mindset.
- Losing motivation to perform – after all, who will notice?
A more acute business risk is the collateral damage among high performers, who may leave due to boredom, lack of trust, or change in transparency; or depart because of overwork without recognition during the interim period.
And if the departure is perceived to be handled with disrespect or the transition was nonexistent, the company’s reputation could suffer.
“Peers pay attention to how transitions are managed and how valued colleagues are treated when they leave,” Amerine said. “If a company hasn’t made strong hires in the past, good people may not stick around to see it happen again.”
Collectively, the exodus of high performers and valued employees creates critical legacy knowledge loss, greatly impacting productivity.
Organizations that tactfully address the Great Pause can move beyond it quickly to avoid these lasting impacts. To fill the void with something other than uncertainty, equal attention needs to be given to the people and teams affected by a new vacancy. Organizations should explore the human impacts of a departing leader and seek to fill the following gaps:
- Reaffirm core values and behaviors
- Leaders model the behaviors that reflect an organization’s core values. Employees who report into an empty role will not receive the day-to-day emphasis on those core values. If a core value is “trust working together,” individuals may not feel they can trust others during this time of turmoil. Even worse, someone may actively compete with other team members to protect or elevate job status. The result? Erosion of an organization’s culture that leaves employees unclear about what behaviors are still valued.
- Reassure individual value
- Employees want to be recognized for the value they provide – and not just with money. A person wants to feel valued at a human level. Anyone reporting to a vacant role will find receiving recognition difficult. The demotivation factor here can’t be overstated. Companies must focus on keeping high performing individuals and teams moving forward and connected to what and who matters during leadership transitions.
- Reassess the most valued characteristics of a new leader
- A new leader will need to be deeply in tune with how well people are connected to and reflecting the core values and associated behaviors. This is an area that existing leaders and employees need to explore as part of the hiring process to identify the best fit for the position. A potential hire should be aware of what the team values and the ability to link that to the organizational values. Any disconnect can lead to even more attrition.
Incoming leaders also need to be aware of their importance and role in terms of fostering a company’s culture. They will bring aspects of the culture of their former employer with them. Misalignment with the organization will cause a disconnect.
To avoid this, human resource leaders and other executives need to hold regular meetings with leaders – especially those new to the organization – so they understand the behaviors to model and what core values those behaviors support. This could be an initiative to avoid email outside of work hours, for instance.
“During leadership transitions much attention is given to the person exiting and the person entering – an essential part of any successful transition,” Amerine said. “Just as beneficial is planning for the interim leadership void and clearly communicating with remaining employees to quickly move past the Great Pause.”
Organizations need to reaffirm core values and behaviors, reassure individuals about their value to the business, and reassess the most valued characteristics of an incoming leader.
Putting people first by adopting these and other human-centered approaches to leadership transitions reduces the negative impacts on employee morale and productivity, improves retention rates during the transition, and creates better onboarding experiences for new leaders.