Category Archives: Attrition

When Friends Resign

A friend of mine resigned a while ago, and I don’t know if I have consciously or unconsciously avoided thinking about it as a topic. Enough time has passed where I think I can look at it at least reasonably objectively.

I have often talked about the conflicted feelings that occur as a result of corporate layoffs. On the one hand there is compassion for those that seemingly through no fault of their own are tapped on the shoulder and told that they don’t have a job anymore. On the other hand there is the necessity for the company to adapt, resize and redefine itself for the new market and financial realities that it is facing. The resulting guilt, fear and uncertainty of the accompanying survivor’s syndrome for the employee’s that remain after watching their friends leave, are detrimental to both the employees and the company. Hence the evolution of the preferred corporate approach of making and implementing the changes quickly so that the focus can return to the business at hand also as quickly as possible.

But what happens when your friends leave of their own accord?

There are also many conflicted feelings that occur when a friend leaves, but I think they are slightly different. In a layoff, there was no choice. Friends are told they no longer have a job. When friends resign we all know that they made a cognitive decision. It was their choice. In the former situation there is a little “there but for the grace go I…” and a little of the afore mentioned survivors guilt. In the latter we all ask: What do they know that I don’t?

Successful business has a lot to do with good leadership and the accepted team approach to achieving the goals. Not everybody can be the leader, but everybody needs to demonstrate leadership. Not everybody will be in full agreement with the leaders, but everybody needs to align with the designated objectives. There is always a mixture of satisfaction and gratification along with frustration and dissatisfaction in all that we do in business. It is how well we are able to balance these conflicting feelings and emotions that will usually have a lot to do with our individual and team success.

The usual process is to create the team, assign the roles, define the objectives and begin their pursuit. The team members begin to mesh and friendships inevitably arise. New teams, roles and objectives will come, but the friendships that are established usually remain. These relationships evolve into our “networks” and support systems.

These are the people that we go to lunch with and who will listen to us when we have not yet fully internalized the directions and objectives that we now have.

When they decide to leave it makes us all take a moment to pause and reflect. The inevitable question that comes to mind is: Why did they decide to go when I have not? Have I missed something?

It has been my experience that career change decisions are invariably made in isolation of any friendships. Most of my friends who have made these types of changes did not tell me or consult with me before they made them. The contemplation of any career change is a personal thing and not to be taken lightly. The support or opposition of a friend to a possible change can modify both individual’s behaviors today and in the future.

Plus, once it is spoken of, even as a remote possibility, the potential career change secret is out. The sharing of a potential career change opportunity or decision could also cause issues with peers and management in any current assignment. If the potential change is not realized, the issues caused by the consideration of it would continue to remain.

In speaking after the fact to friends who have left in the past, I have found that they normally leave for basically one of two general reasons: to increase their satisfaction and gratification related to what they do, or to decrease their level of frustration or dissatisfaction related to their current roles and situations. The first reason is looking forward to something better. The second is looking back at something worse.

The increase in satisfaction can come in the form of more money, promotions, more responsibility, titles, etc. This can be seen as part of the normal progress in a career. As one matriculates up the management line, the number of available “next step” positions becomes increasingly small. Sometimes it may be viewed as necessary to step outside of the current structure to keep a career moving.

The decrease in dissatisfaction can come in the form of the desire for a more stable work environment (no prospect of layoffs) better alignment and utilization of individual talents or better alignment between work and management styles. Misalignments in strategies, cultures and management styles can contribute to and accumulate dissatisfaction to the point where an exit may be required just maintain some semblance of sanity.

In many instances it seems to have ended up being a combination of all of the above.

There is normally also some sort of minimum differential barrier that must be overcome in order to get someone to decide to leave their current role. This could be considered the “barrier to exit” (as opposed to an economist’s barrier to entry). Most everyone will put up with some amount dissatisfaction in their current role. Most everyone will also put up with some lack of satisfaction in their current role. This can be due to the time, effort, pay level, etc. that has them vested to one level or another in their current role. Please notice that lack of satisfaction and dissatisfaction are in fact different. The lack of happiness doesn’t mean that you are unhappy. It just means that you are not happy. I think you can go a lot longer not being happy than you can go being unhappy.

But how much does it take to cause someone to go past the barrier to exit tipping point? Again it seems that there are many factors. Careers and career trajectories, corporate positions, directions and performance, and time, as well as the status of the greater employment and opportunity markets will all come into play in either lowering or raising the barrier to exit.

I think that this is probably a long winded way of saying that as individuals we will all react differently to the stimuli, both the positive and the negative associated with our positions. We all create our own barriers to exit. Sometimes there is a desire to leave, but no opportunity elsewhere. Sometimes there are opportunities elsewhere but no desire to leave. Either case could be considered a high barrier to exit situation.

I think we all either consciously or unconsciously keep track of our own barriers. It is only when someone we know has consciously overcome their barriers and resigned that causes us to pause and question. We wonder if our barriers are too high and are we missing something. We also wonder if theirs were too low and were they too rash.

I believe the answer is that anyone that makes a career decision either to stay or to go, has probably made the right decision for them. It is not good to judge your own happiness based on the happiness of someone else. It is probably equally inappropriate to judge your satisfaction with your position or career based on the position or career satisfaction of someone else. They have made a choice and are probably happy with it, just as you may or may not have made a different choice and should be happy (or at least not unhappy) with it.

Still, you can’t help but wonder.

I wish you fair winds and following seas, my friend.

Attrition: Causes and Cures

Just as every leader understands that each assignment is a step in their career, they also need to understand that the same is true for each of their team members. It is sometimes too easy to fall into the trap of complacency when it comes to team members. As a leader you have spent a significant amount of time assembling the best, brightest and most skilled team possible. Your team consistently produces exemplary results. Now you notice that they are leaving, and not just a few at a time but in significant numbers. There is no question about it. You have an attrition problem. Now what?

As is usual in business if you are recognizing that you have a problem it probably already is too late. This truly applies to attrition. By the time you recognize that there are more people leaving than would be normally associated with standard career transitions, you will have almost assuredly lost more talent than you want from your team, and more importantly you will have a significant number of additional team members that are probably in one stage or another of their exit process as well. The time to worry about attrition is before it happens. I’ll talk about avoiding attrition later. The question now is what to do about an unwanted attrition issue. Once it starts attrition can and will take on a life of its own.

The key to calming an attrition stampede is to understand on what level the issues of discontent are rooted. Is it a corporate wide issue, a business unit issue, or an individual level issue? Is it based on rumor or actual business performance? Maybe they just don’t like you anymore. Whatever it is that is causing good people to leave faster than you want, you had better find out. I said faster than you want because as I noted above, each assignment is a step in everybody’s career. It is usually not their end point destination. There will always be people transitioning on to their next career step. This is healthy for them and the organization. As with just about everything else in the world today though, too much of a good thing can be bad.

If the issue is deemed to be a corporate wide issue, it will usually be caused by either conflicting or ineffective messages being sent by the corporation’s senior most management. In times of senior management change or poor corporate performance a very clear and concise set of messages regarding strategic directions and plans needs to be openly communicated. Team members understand that change may take time and can usually be patient in order to see the results of the changes, to a point. The more specific the senior management actions and activities that can be identified that are to be taken, the more patient the team can be. However the team will need eventually to be able to see and identify progress against the actions in order to feel secure enough to remain through the period of corporate instability.

If the issue is thought to be on a business unit level, a cause will also need to be identified. Business unit attrition related causes are usually attributable to the business unit performance. If the business unit team believes that the unit has been identified as a troubled or “problem” business, they will try to anticipate senior management actions associated with improving business performance (cost reductions, travel freezes, lay-offs, etc.) and look to transition to other opportunities in other businesses or business units that are not so troubled. Again communicating a clear and concise set of actions for the business may help stem the attrition stampede, but there probably truly is no way to stop this one. People usually like to feel that they are part of a winning team, and in this case they will always look elsewhere if they feel the chances for success on their current team will be limited by the overall team perception or performance.

If the attrition is truly localized into one specific organization then it may be an individual based attrition. This is usually the result of an interpersonal or management technique conflict between the team manager and the team. If it is happening to your specific team you had better be able to look in the mirror and ask yourself the difficult questions regarding you and your relationship to the team. If your role is to try and turn around an underperforming team and you are a change agent, then you can honestly expect that some team members may not be comfortable with the new direction and choose to leave. If you are picking up a new team that has been performing well and they are choosing to leave, then you had better understand those issues quickly. Issues such as frustration or a perceived slight at being passed over in the selection of a new leader can be a generating event in the starting of an attrition wave.

The time to worry about attrition, like forest fires and tooth decay is before it happens. Attrition prevention is far more preferable than having to rapidly implement corrective actions to try and stem the outward flow of talent. Attrition also requires an honest assessment of the issues. Too many times teams will try to equivocate and split hairs as to exactly how the definition, measurement or importance of attrition is to be set. Managers may have a tendency to try and justify higher levels of attrition as acceptable in light of certain factors. They may try to differentiate between attrition of people leaving the group for other groups within the same company and those that leave the company for another company. This direction is normally taken by groups that are suffering from attrition and either cannot or do not have the ability to address the underlying attrition causing issues. Regardless of how it is positioned, attrition is still the unwanted exiting of employees from a defined group or population.

The solution to attrition prevention is very similar to the solution to attrition itself; communication. The difference is that leaders will actually communicate clearly to their teams the challenges in front of them as well as the specific actions that are being put in place and being taken to address them. Managers will usually wait until there is a recognizable attrition issue before communicating. Leaders will be proactive in acknowledging the business issues and position with the team and preparing them for the actions to be taken. In many instances the corrective actions that are outlined to the team may encompass some unpleasant but necessary business activities such as lay-offs and other cost cutting measures. By getting them out into the open early leaders can at least begin to control the realities of what needs to be done and the accompanying rumors (which are almost always worse than the actual truth) can be minimized.

Attrition is expensive in that when people leave they take all that they know and all they have learned with them. They take a proficiency that they have acquired over time that can only be replaced with a similar amount of time and experience. Attrition leaves the remaining team short staffed and over worked (two incremental issues that can add to the underlying attrition causes) while replacements are sought. Attrition reduces the efficiency of the entire team as the replacement is searched for, located, brought on board and then comes up to speed in the needs of the position. Transitions of any type, at the corporate CEO level or the individual contributor all go much smoother when they are anticipated, planned for and executed as opposed to responding to the unexpected exit associated with attrition. The time to plan for and implement an attrition strategy is well before any issues arise, and any attritions starts.