High Attrition and the Fundamental Attribution Error


I was recently speaking with a friend who noted that the turnover rate at his company was surprisingly high at 26%.  According to him, this was news to everyone as no one had been tracking it, there was just an assumption of good culture since most people seemed happy… at least outwardly.  However, a few departments had seen unusually high turnover, one of them being Human Resources at over 50%.  Now, I would hope this would be cause for alarm by some of the leadership but quite the contrary, many of the senior leaders seemed quite aloof.  My friend had heard them say such things as “they [those that left] just weren’t committed to what we are doing here” and “I’ve lost over half my staff in the past year…I’m trying not to take it personally.”  WHAT!?

I’m going to go in reverse order since the last one seems the most perverse.  According to my friend, this person, a senior HR leader, has lost 5 of his 9 direct reports within the past year.  Does this person not read any studies about why employees say they leave?  For that past 20+ years, the number one reason people leave a job is their boss.  That is not to say the ONLY reason employees leave is because of a bad boss but the law of averages has to catch up to you sooner or later.  I am reminded of a rather cynical quote I saw on Despair.com, “The only consistent feature of all your dissatisfying relationships is you.”  So how you could possibly NOT take over half your staff leaving, personally?  Now I could open up the flood gates to all the other external reasons why someone might want to leave but that just gets us into the second issue…or the first comment by senior HR leaders above.  The fundamental attribution error.

The Fundamental Attribution Error is a psychological principle that basically says we mistakenly confuse character flaws with situational causes.  It can most notably seen when we make observations about others in comparison to ourselves.  A simple example is: if you get into an accident, you are a careless driver and weren’t paying attention (character). When I get into an accident at that same intersection, the stoplights were messed up and there was ice (situational).  Moreover, we tend to seek external causes to our misfortune rather than looking internally.  It is always because of something else that bad things happen, not because of us.  So because [they] are not committed, they left.  I’m sure it has nothing to do with you. Right.

Here is another disturbing indicator, this company my friend works at, does not do exit interviews. Presumably, because they either don’t want to know why people are leaving, or they DO know why people are leaving and they don’t want it confirmed.  After all, a fair amount of our defensive responses surround protecting ourselves from things we do not want to feel, or be reminded of.  So if I  fear I am a bad boss and I do not want to feel that way, I will think of countless ways to avoid it (such as not asking, attributing turnover to external causes, blaming, rationalizing, etc.)

If you have high turnover, and it is a surprise when it happens, there is a good chance you are not paying attention to how YOU affect your employees.  Sure, there are other reasons, but YOU have control over most of them.  If you really want to know, find a good 360 instrument, ask your employees, and DO something with your exit data.

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3 thoughts on “High Attrition and the Fundamental Attribution Error

  1. Pingback: What are the Costs of Losing a Key Employee? « SF Bay Biorecruiter's Blog

  2. Pingback: The Mid-level Gap « Peak Alignment

  3. Pingback: What are the Costs of Losing a Key Employee? | Hampton & Associates – Scientific and Executive Search Services

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