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The Dangerous Fear of Attrition

By Pat Lencioni - October 2015

Many leaders have something of an obsession with retention, and a corresponding fear of attrition. Whether we’re talking about employees, customers or even members of a church congregation, we seem to have an almost unconscious desire to do whatever we can to keep anyone from leaving. So we compromise our strategies or water down our policies to appeal to the largest number of people possible. Ironically, this actually creates the very problem we fear most as we end up discouraging—and often losing—our core constituents, the people who are our best recruiters, marketers and evangelists. In the end, we are left with an organization that fewer and fewer people want to be part of.

Perhaps the most obvious example has to do with the misguided fear of employee attrition. An executive recently told me about an important cultural change he had made in his organization to address the apathy and entitlement that had permeated the attitude of his three hundred employees. Essentially, he changed the compensation system to better reward performance, which created a significant amount of anxiety within the company. The executive then proudly announced that the initiative had brought about some improvement in productivity and that none of his employees had left. My first reaction, and my question to him, was this: “Did the culture really change? If no one opted out of the organization, then maybe the program wasn’t bold or dramatic enough. Do you think that everyone belongs in the company?”

Now, I’m not a supporter of weeding out a certain percent of employees per year just as a rule. That seems arbitrary and cruel to me. But when an organization is trying to bring about an important cultural change, people opting out as a result is generally a good sign that the program is effective and real. When corporate leaders spend time and energy to retain employees who aren’t ideal fits for the organization, they only dilute the attention they give to their best people. Eventually, those “best” people look elsewhere when they realize that their commitment to the direction of the company is less important than they thought it was. Of course, when that happens, leaders start to panic, and rightly so.

The same principle often applies to customers. Trying too hard to keep every customer, or win new ones, can lead companies to dilute the purity of the product or service they offer, which can risk disappointing the most loyal customers. These are the people who understand and appreciate the company the most, and who usually attract new customers through word-of-mouth, something that is more important than ever in this viral world. In-N-Out Burger, the legendary fast food company based in Southern California, refuses to add turkey sandwiches to its menu to attract new customers because they know that they would only diminish their appeal to people who love burgers. Chick-fil-A won’t add a burger to their menu because it would dilute the clarity of what they do. People admire an organization that sticks to its core.

Church leaders might succumb to the fear of attrition on the grounds of wanting to reach out to everyone and exclude no one. That is truly a noble and worthy goal. However, when the desire to reach out to all people leads to the dilution of the very “thing” they want those people to understand and embrace, the result is almost always disappointing. Usually, it leads to the loss of the core constituency, and—get this—a reduction in interest from those people who aren’t sure they’re interested in the first place! What attracts new people to an organization or movement is the same thing that keeps the best people in them—a sincere, unapologetic and joyful commitment to what matters most. I’m absolutely convinced of this.

And for those who find this acceptance of attrition a difficult pill to swallow, keep this in mind. Retaining a misaligned employee, customer or member of the congregation is not actually good for that person, who is often just plain unhappy. Compassionately freeing them to leave, without animosity or bitterness, will actually increase the likelihood that they may eventually opt in for the right reasons. That seems a lot wiser than retaining them for the wrong ones.