The great resignation or the great reset?

The pandemic brought with it an unprecedented loss of control and progress, ahead of the launch of You Coach You, Sarah Ellis, the co-founder of Amazing If, explains why now is the time to embrace difficult conversations in the workplace.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


“It is not enough to tell people they can progress in your organisation; you need evidence; you need storytelling to show people what is possible.”

Sarah Ellis is explaining one of the biggest challenges facing businesses in the wake of the pandemic; namely how to ensure employees feel like they can truly progress and reach their full potential. That choosing change doesn’t automatically equate to leaving. 

With all those headlines on ‘The Great Resignation’ turning out to be a statement of intent, rather than a far-off and ultimately unconvincing trend, Ellis reports that many employees believe they need to leave their current role because there isn’t the opportunity for progress. This sense of life on pause is particularly acute in the wake of a pandemic that put so many aspects of everyday life on hold; from weddings, to travel, to the daily rituals of the commute; the sense of being in a state of stasis was particularly acute. 

As we emerge from the pandemic, in the wake of this sense of life on hold, it is little surprise that LinkedIn posts on the power of quitting are going viral. Across the board, individuals are choosing change on an unprecedented scale. A change which companies simply cannot ignore.

Redesigning the workplace 

For Ellis, this presents a unique opportunity to reconnect and redesign the workplace, but it's an opportunity that demands managers lean into challenging conversations.

She explains: “You can’t have a protectionist approach to your talent. You can’t be scared to have those conversations about where they want to go and what they want to do.” The question she believes therefore becomes: “have you got that high trust environment.”

In the wake of the much-discussed ‘great resignation’ these difficult conversations are becoming an increasingly common part of our everyday working lives. While the data on salary inflation across the industry means that more employees are opening the door to difficult conversations. 

Conversations for which Ellis has some typically practical and astute advice. She explains: “When we are thinking about difficult conversations, we often think that everything needs to be solved at once, so we put a lot of pressure on ourselves and on one conversation.”

As she notes, ultimately most difficult career conversations are unlikely to be solved instantly. Therefore she explains that it is fine to be direct; for example, negotiating a pay rise if you believe your role is worth more - you need to establish if it's a flat no, or a long-term yes. 

It’s an honest and straightforward approach that works both ways and demands that leaders are honest and transparent about the constraints they are operating within. “I had someone who worked with me who was offered a new role in a different department and I knew I couldn’t match that salary, so it was really about figuring out the best way to make that transition work.” 

She believes that everyone faces constraints or knockbacks in their careers. The key is to navigate the three stages that come with that challenge. She notes that while you start off as a victim, feeling helpless when things don't go your way; the urge is then to neutralise that feeling and simply carry on. 

Instead, she urges the path of ‘stubborn adaptiveness’ which in essence involves working out what to hold on to and what to let go of. “These are hard choices,” explains Ellis “you might have to let go of achieving what you want within your current organisation.” Yet she notes that once you have the facts and understand the constraints you are facing, you can decide what to do. 

Our fears get stronger in those moments when we are taking on too much, when we are vulnerable we have to consciously turn down the volume on the inner critic. It is an octopus with tentacles and we have to contain it.

Sarah Ellis, Co-Founder, Amazing If

Waiting or creating?

For Ellis figuring out what you can control and then being accepting of what you cannot, opens the door to embracing the difference between ‘waiting and creating’ 

Often the biggest barrier for growth is perhaps not the constraints of an individual role or career path, but the constant white noise of your inner critic? At a time when overload, mental health and burnout are at the top of the industry agenda, Ellis suggests that the closer you get to burnout, the louder that inner critic becomes. 

As she explains: “We know that when we are burnt out we can never do our best work,” she explains, adding: “Rationally and objectively we all know that some of those challenges we face are pressures we place on ourselves and some come from managers and organisations.”

Silencing our inner critics

“Our fears get stronger in those moments when we are taking on too much, when we are vulnerable we have to consciously turn down the volume on the inner critic. It is an octopus with tentacles and we have to contain it,” says Ellis.

With this in mind, Ellis suggests practical tips to quash that inner critic; a voice that many have found has become louder in the wake of the pandemic. She suggests taking the time to write down one personal success. 

“If we press pause for a moment to celebrate that one thing is going well; whether that is the fact you managed to pick your kid up from school, or make time for a walk, or complete a project. This helps to build our resilience reserves and the feeling that what we do matters,” she notes.

Noting that no one likes to feel like they are failing or stuck, she shares that being conscious about the ‘thinking traps’ we can all too easily fall into and instead reframe them as positive prompts. In practice, this means those refrains of: ‘I don’t have time’ or ‘I don’t have control of my day’ can be turned on their head. For example through asking; ‘What is the one thing I can take control of today? Or an open question such as: ‘What does time well spent this week mean to me?’ or ‘Who is doing work that I admire?’ A process which Ellis believes can massively improve self-awareness. When you find the time to take three walks in the week, suddenly you are taking control when you feel overwhelmed or that your work is controlling your life. 

A resolve for resilience

As we look hopefully towards 2022, yet also face the looming threat of more pandemic-induced restrictions, resilience is understandably at the top of the business agenda. “Don’t wait for something bad to happen to build your resilience,” says Ellis “you need to build your resilience continually so you can draw on it when you need it.”

Sharing her own challenges of navigating maternity leave Ellis believes that the phrase ‘bouncing back’ isn’t helpful as it implies you are seeking to go back to a period of your life which is now over. “We need to look at how we help people build positive momentum,” she explains, adding: “In those hard moments we find it difficult to help, but people feel privileged to be asked for help, so don't apologise for it.” 

In practice, this means not feeling you need to know all the answers or pretend that you do and being really specific about the help that you are asking for. Ellis recalls a conversation with Cilla Snowball in which Snowball explicitly asked: “Right Sarah, how can I help you?” 

Active rest

Ellis advocates for the power of ‘Active Rest’ an ethos developed by Alex Soojung-Kim, a consultant in Silicon Valley and a visiting scholar at Stanford University. His book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less eloquently advocates for challenging the myth that more hours automatically equate to more productivity. 

While there is more widespread acceptance that overwork is bad for both people and productivity, the concept of ‘Active Rest’ is less well-known. In essence, Active Rest is all about your brain being completely absorbed with something that isn’t work yet requires concentration and effort; exercise, gardening or playing a musical instrument.

“I did a drawing course and my brain had no capacity to think about my to-do list, it helps to give us space to have an identity beyond work and release the stress of work,” explains Ellis. 

It’s this world outside of work that fuels our resilience and creativity within it. “It really doesn't matter how busy I am, I need some space and doing something once a week can make a really big difference.”

By prioritising those little moments of craft, connection and creativity we can build the culture of positivity that is so vital to thrive in the age of almost constant change. 


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