Let’s Discuss Attrition
Sunday, September 5, 2021
Let’s discuss attrition. Attrition gets the most negative attention at workplaces. Folks talk in hushed tones about who is leaving, who is going where, the types of offers they are getting, and what could be going wrong with your team or company. Managers periodically sit with HR teams to review attrition trends in different geographies, pay levels, and diverse groups of employees, nod their heads and move on. A few courageous folks surface attrition concerns during team meetings, townhalls and all-hands meetings only to get vague answers from their managers. Most of us consider attrition bad and don’t often look at it with a growth mindset.
For those leaving, there is the usual drama of long emails and LinkedIn posts about all the good things they are leaving behind. People write about why they are leaving, and how they are feeling, and sometime later, follow with why they are excited to join a new company. No doubt. It’s natural to feel emotional when leaving a team with whom you spent your most waking hours. It’s also natural to feel excited when embarking on a new journey. This phase replaces all the accumulated negativity of the company they are leaving with the positivity and anticipation of what they will do at the new company. This phase, too, is natural.
The mood is different for those not leaving yet. They fear missing out on the good things those leaving are likely getting. They worry about things falling apart in their current team or company. They feel uncertain of not knowing what others might have known about what’s wrong and speculate why others are leaving. Worse, people feel anxious about their worth and fear that they are not qualified enough to pocket the same kind of jobs that others are getting. These are nothing but symptoms of a fear mindset.
Most managers also play the victim when people leave their teams. They talk to their managers and HR teams about things that are supposedly driving attrition – like compensation, cultural challenges, lack of innovation, the market, the other companies paying more, and so on. I’ve had people come to me and tell me that some team is falling apart because one or two people left that team to work elsewhere.
For a manager, this is an unproductive drama. Fear and feeling uncertain about attrition are not going to take you anywhere. Let’s look at what you should focus on instead.
First, recognize that attrition is natural. Everyone moves on one day or the other, including yourself. There is no need to be dramatic about it. It’s okay for people to leave a team or a company. Also, realize that companies and teams go through cycles of new work, scaling out the work, stabilizing that work, or even shrinking back. Hiring, attrition, and divestments support these cycles and are healthy.
Second, reasons for attrition vary. You can try to put each exit into a bucket, but that’s simplistic. There is usually more than one reason for someone to leave a team or a company, and those reasons vary from person to person. I find it more important to get feedback during exit interviews than to speculate about why someone is leaving. It is difficult to know after a person has decided to leave.
Third, and most importantly, recognize that attrition is an output. You know when it happens, but you can’t control it. It is too late. Instead, you should focus on what you can control. You should also recognize that there is usually a lag of at least a few months between the controllable inputs, the things you should focus on, and the output, which is attrition.
Besides cash and deferred compensation, look at how well your teams are executing. Are roles and responsibilities clear? Are decisions languishing? How quick is your and your team’s decision-making? How is execution? Is the team producing results? Is the work aligned to business outcomes? How are those business outcomes?
Does your team have a purpose and a strategy to realize that purpose? Does your team understand and is driven by that strategy?
Are you investing in the growth and development of the people that work in your team? Are you spotting growth areas for each of your team members and taking the time to invest in their development? Are you facilitating stretch goals to promote growth?
Are you learning? Is your team learning? Is the team continually improving their work? Are they leading the change?
Look at all these things and more.
I’m sure you will find plenty of reasons to improve. Those are what you can and must learn to control. Even then, people will leave your team or company. When they do, congratulate them. Hopefully, your leadership enabled them to grow beyond their current roles and hence new opportunities knocked on their doors.
Every exit gives you, the manager, an opportunity to improve the team structure and dynamics. Attrition loosens the team fabric and gives you a chance to reshape it. Don’t let go of that opportunity.
I’ve had people leave my team. Though I panicked once and wanted to retain someone on impulse, I eventually took the time to figure out what I need for the next phase. That comtemplation and analysis helped me morph the team charter to support our strategy, and hire someone to lead that strategy.
It is also common to see others stepping up when someone leaves their team. When this happens, you have to ask yourself what made you not see it before that person left the team, and what you should have done differently. Perhaps you didn’t realize the person leaving has outgrown their role and you didn’t observe? Perhaps you didn’t notice that the other person is ready to step up but this other person is blocking?
Look around, and you will find examples.
Finally, keep calm. Remember that we’re all temporary custodians at work. Just focus on leaving things in a better shape than when you started.