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How companies can help employees avoid the “Great Regret”

Many employees are experiencing the "Great Regret" of leaving their jobs during the pandemic, but companies can help prevent that.

6 min read


Great Regret

Kenny Eliason/Unsplash

This headline caught my attention: The Great Resignation turns to the Great Regret as worker needs are not being met, expert says.

susan fowler

Suddenly venerable business sites are reporting on the Great Regret and its cousin that’s gone viral, the Quiet Quitting. McKinsey & Company claims the Great Attrition has become the Great Renegotiation. But no matter how many trendy names we assign to the phenomenon, covering the story is different from understanding it, let alone recommending solutions. I think companies, and the Great Resigners themselves, need an empirically-based explanation of the story behind the story — and how to rewrite the end story featuring reality-based solutions.

The story behind the story

During the Great [fill-in-the-blank], millions of people quit or changed jobs for myriad reasons. But a recent study reveals that the most cited motivation behind quitting was the need for flexibility, or as the report states: “Anything for autonomy.”

Delve further into the data explaining the motivation behind people quitting their jobs, and you find the need to escape “toxic managers” and “a feeling of not being appreciated.” The Great Resigners “crave” a company culture focused on employee health and well-being that emphasizes meaning and purpose. These job seekers aren’t lazy and looking for a handout. They want career development and opportunities for advancement.

All this research underscores what motivation science proves: When people are “unhappy” at work, they yearn for something. But what they don’t realize is that the “something” at the core of their longing is their unmet psychological need for choice (autonomy), connection (meaningful relationships and work) and competence (growth, learning, opportunities, resources).

When people don’t fulfill these three psychological needs for choice, connection and competence, they unconsciously seek compensation — something to fill the void they feel but don’t understand. Typically, they pursue compensation through more money, benefits and perks. The scientific term for seeking to compensate for missing psychological needs is compensatory need satisfaction. And it doesn’t work. The Great Resigners are experiencing the Great Regret of misunderstanding the nature of happiness — and the motivation behind it.

Three reality-based solutions for a better story ending

Regret doesn’t have to be the inevitable conclusion for people realigning their work life. We can create alternative endings to the unfulfilled upgrades most commonly cited as why people decided to leave their jobs for another.

Money and psychological needs. Using money as an excuse for taking another job is a common mistake fueling people’s ultimate regret. Pursuing money to compensate for a lack of choice, connection and competence may improve the pocketbook. But research proves it most assuredly erodes well-being and the ability to sustain the performance required to continue earning the increased income.

Yet desiring more money isn’t always a sign of extrinsic motivation, the suboptimal motivation that fuels employee disengagement. Sometimes people ask for money because current wages are unfair. Equity — or lack of it — is an issue that erodes connection in the workplace.

Money is symbolic. Yes, people need a living wage, but not just for survival. People need to feel a sense of belonging and genuine relationships to thrive. So, when Adam Grant proposes that companies extend raises to veteran workers to keep them happily in place, it’s not what you’re doing that matters as much as why you’re doing it. Instead of positioning increased pay as an incentive or reward for staying, position higher wages as a symbol of gratitude to deepen connection.

Leaders and individuals need to understand the larger context for compensation’s role in the workplace. For more insight, refer to my recent article describing the significant work of researchers Landry, Zhang, and Forest. Using the Motives for Making Money Scale (MMMS), they validated that people thrive when they pursue money for reasons aligned with satisfying their psychological need for choice, connection and competence.

Flexibility and psychological needs. Ironically, the restrictions of staying home during the pandemic years helped people appreciate the discretionary time they gained from not getting ready for work in the morning, commuting to and from the office, eating at an expected hour,and decompressing at the end of the day. With research revealing that productivity didn’t suffer from people working at home (and low unemployment rates), the workforce has put organizations on notice. They want continued flexibility and choices.

People may not understand the psychological shift, but motivation science does. We need autonomy to thrive. But autonomy doesn’t equate to freedom. People’s psychological need for choice is fulfilled through their perception of autonomy, having options within boundaries and believing they are in control of their actions.

If you don’t want to erode people’s psychological need for choice, stop leading from a top-down position of power and control, applying pressure to perform and depending on incentives to drive results.

Meaningful work and psychological needs. People who experience employee work passion display the intention to

  • Stay in the organization
  • Endorse the organization to others
  • Perform at above standard expectations
  • Use discretionary effort on behalf of the organization
  • Demonstrate organizational citizenship behaviors

Listen to Zaid Khan on TikTok describing the rationale behind Quiet Quitting. He almost directly dismisses four of the five intentions characterizing work passion. It saddens me that he is undermining the organization, its employees and its customers. What he doesn’t understand is that he’s also hurting himself. 

Khan believes that by not engaging, he’s reducing his stress. But with over half of his life connected to work, Khan’s opportunity loss from quiet quitting is heartrending. Why not choose to be engaged and optimally motivated? Motivation is a skill. Instead of bemoaning a workplace rife with pressure,  what if Khan understood how to shift his motivation? By creating the choice, connection and competence that he needs to thrive, he could flourish no matter where he is — at work or play.

Many of the Great Resigners either silently or explicitly crave meaningful work. Meaning is a by-product of fulfilling psychological needs. Everyone is on the path to the Great Regret when organizations don’t help people experience choice, connection and competence through their goals, decisions, activities and workplace relationships. Without creating the optimal motivation that comes from fulfilling their psychological needs, all the perks in the world still lead to meaningless work.


Susan Fowler, CEO of Mojo Moments, is the bestselling author of “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information and the free What’s Your MO? survey for exploring your motivational outlook, visit or


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