This is a story about the Great Resignation and emotional intelligence. If you find it useful, I recommend that you also read my newsletter and my free e-book Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021.

It all comes down to a single, vexed, four-letter word, which we'll discuss below. And it comes after the U.S. Department of Labor revealed Friday that 4.4 million people, reflecting 3 percent of the entire U.S. workforce, left their jobs during September.

That number broke the record that had been set in August, which in turn had broken the previous record, set in July.

I find that many people have one of two reactions to this employment news:

  1. Explanation 1: Nobody wants to work. Businesses now face incredible challenges hiring and retaining good employees, and it's because people have developed unreasonable expectations about what their jobs should be. Isn't it supposed to be called "work" for a reason?
  2. Explanation 2: It's a temporary trend. Workers are taking advantage of their newfound leverage -- both direct and indirect -- due to the pandemic. Down the road, things will normalize. Wages might rise, employers might adopt new flexible workplace policies, etc. We'll adjust, but it won't be existentially different.

Insufficient explanations and misplaced moralism

Now, I object to both of these explanations; at least, I find them glaringly insufficient.

As someone who writes and thinks a lot about the concept of emotional intelligence -- and also as someone who once quit a brand-new job after a single day and went viral for it -- I think they both miss the point.

  • The first explanation is too tied up in its undercurrent of misplaced moralism: the idea that employees owe their places to their employers, and that workers in a larger sense have an obligation to work -- and especially to work for employers' offered terms.
  • The second explanation at least captures the give-and-take of the marketplace, but it unsatisfactorily looks at people's actions as if they were just data points in a macroeconomics class. It strips individuals of their agency.

Neither of these reflects how most people who leave jobs look at things, at least not in a vacuum. And even if you're an entrepreneur and business owner as opposed to an employee, I'll bet the odds are good that you can relate.

Other explanations?

I'll bet you've had jobs in the past that weren't a great fit, and I'll bet that it was you, not the employer, who ended the relationship.

So, ask yourself: Did you do so because you had unreasonable expectations? Did you do so because you were part of a macroeconomic trend?

Or did you do so because perhaps:

  • You'd thought hard about what you were doing for a living, and realized it didn't fit with your long-term goals? 
  • You realized that you'd stuck around too long out of a misplaced sense of moral duty?
  • You simply considered your value as a worker and realized that the people you were working for couldn't or wouldn't ever likely be able to perceive it?
  • You realized that by taking up the spot and performing at least competently (even if it wasn't the perfect position), you were blocking someone else for whom it might be a dream job?
  • You realized that you'd followed someone else's plan for your life, and even if it had worked out on paper, you weren't thrilled with the result; meanwhile, the fear of simply being branded "a quitter" had stopped you from finding an off-ramp earlier?

High emotional intelligence

These are some of the more complex, common, and frankly human motivations for leaving a job. They're the ones that show how emotion and rational decision-making can be entwined in this whole process. 

They're also why I think that quitting a job that's a bad fit, or even just not as great a fit as it might once have seemed, is for many people a sign of high emotional intelligence.

The definition I like to use for this concept is a simple one: Emotional intelligence is the practiced awareness of how emotions affect your communications and efforts, coupled with strategies that you develop to leverage your emotions and other people's emotions to help you achieve goals.

Take that word quit, however; it can acquire so much emotional baggage. We're told so often that people who quit things are losers, and that quitting one thing makes it easier to quit other things later in life.

Meanwhile, we encourage people to continue on certain courses of action because they're the courses of action they've already put time and effort into: 

  • Continue trying to make that flawed startup work. 
  • Keep working at that job because it's the one you trained for.
  • Stick with the relationship because you don't know how much worse it could be out there.

Moral neutrality

We do all this even though it's like a series of textbook examples of what economic theory tells us not to do: basically, the sunk cost fallacy, which drives people to continue a course of action in order to justify the volume of their previous efforts, despite the fact that a clear-eyed cost-benefit analysis would tell them that continuing is unlikely to be worth the effort.

But quit is itself a truly neutral word; we can't know whether it's a "good" thing or not without knowing the object of the verb. Examples:

  • "He quit trying to raise more investment and focused instead on bootstrapping the company."
  • "She quit trying to sell into that market because these other ones were more profitable.
  • "He quit the relationship because he realized he and his partner didn't want the same things."
  • "She quit the academic program because it wasn't as fulfilling as she'd hoped, and she didn't think she'd make enough extra money later to justify it."
  • "He quit drinking and partying every night because it was interfering with other parts of his life."

Strip out the emotions

Look, I certainly have sympathy for employers trying to staff their businesses right now.

(Although, maybe this whole discussion is an indication that times have changed, and that companies should quit trying to hire and retain as they did in the past.)

Also, I'm aware that I'm swimming upstream trying to get people to embrace the idea of "quitting" as morally neutral at least, and perhaps even something to be admired in the aggregate.

But emotionally intelligent people know: Stripping the abstract emotional connotations of the concept of quitting itself, from any decision whether to continue or stop doing something, is more likely to result in an outcome that brings you closer to your long-term goals.

That's really the whole point of emotional intelligence. And if you can do that, who cares what anyone else might think?