a 2-factor model of setting up for failure

“Age wrinkles the body. Quitting wrinkles the soul.”—General Douglas MacArthur


Almost everybody thinks about quittingat least once during a lifetime of employment. I don’t know everybody, but I would bet on it. It’s an even safer bet that the most likely reasons are the most obvious: low pay, poor advancement prospects, unreasonable unpaid overtime, unacceptable work environment, personality clashes, bad hours, a better job, health, family obligations or “family way”,  or utterly tyrannical boss—things like that.


Boredom as Catalyst, Not Cause of Quitting

A riskier bet is that employees quit from sheer boredom. In my experience, boredom is a catalyst for finding another reason to quit, e.g., a better job offer. In and of itself, boredom seems to be insufficient to make most employees walk—perhaps because boredom is widely seen to be like a layered lamination on work, much like Teflon on a frying pan: It ultimately prevents sticking to the job, even though, because or while it allows the employee to fume, burn, burn up and burn out.

If boredom were sufficient to directly and immediately trigger boredom, most factories, fast food restaurant kitchens, data entry jobs, toll booths and much of the rest of the economy’s postings would be impossible to fill or to fill for very long.

Once the reasons become more psychologically complex than, for example, 1-dimensional economic or ergonomic factors (such as computer eye strain), their dynamics become more subtle, more oblique—case in point being how boredom functions more as a catalyst than as a cause.

1-Factor  vs. 2-Factor Quitting

The subtlety can informally be measured by how long it takes the quitting employee to explain the departure and for it to be comprehended: “Low pay” takes one second; “eye strain”—one second; “permanent maternity leave”—one second; “overworked”—one second; “heart attack”—one second.

However, compare some of the more complex psychological reasons, which take much more time. In doing so, you may discover some very important mistakes to avoid and  useful questions and areas to explore with candidates in order to determine vulnerabilities to these kinds of job-jeopardizing stressors.

Most importantly, you will come to understand a simple 2-factor model that describes how to set a candidate up for job failure, in the form of provoked quitting. That model is called “catastrophe theory”:

1. A really bad mix of “low decision latitude” and “high demand load”: Quitting is more likely if an employee has a “high demand load”—intuitively, simply too much to do, too much pressure to do it, too little time in which to do it, etc., and also has “low decision latitude”—not much discretion, autonomy, freedom to do the job as he or she fits, using whatever tools seem appropriate, little control over the performance and execution of tasks, and the like.

In addition to quitting being more likely, so is cardiovascular disease, according to the  1970s pioneering research of Dr. Robert Karasek and of the follow-up studies and models of those who have refined, reviewed,  and extended his findings. Karasek and those who have modified his views generally believe that a 2-factor model does a pretty good job of predicting who will and won’t be at risk of cardiovascular “events” such as heart attacks. The initial model was framed in terms of this latitude-load duality. Refinements and rival focus on variations such as “control” or, more specifically, “inner locus of control”.

If you are a corporate recruiter, you should vet the job to be sure that the load and latitude are well balanced, before placing the candidate. On the other hand, if you are an agency recruiter, you might find yourself having to fill that position again and sooner than you would have expected.

2. Toxic mix of responsibility without authority: Holding an employee responsible for results while denying the same employee the authority to get the job done is one of the fastest ways to lose that worker. Notice how this phenomenon, like the latitude-load problem, is controlled and created by exactly two variables, neither one of which alone would be sufficient to push the employee over the catastrophic edge and out the door.

A boss tells an employee to get something very important printed by 5 pm. The employee rushes to the printing department to get the job done, but is told he needs a requisition form stamped by the boss—who has, in the meantime, left and gone fishing for one week. This scenario is “episodic” or “acute”—a perhaps isolated instance, probably insufficient to get someone to quit (if he didn’t get fired first), although it could, if the consequences for the employee were dire or exasperating enough.

More serious is the “chronic” case in which the job is structured in such a way that the employee has this bind on an ongoing basis, without respite. An example would be the placement of a candidate as a project manager who requires the cooperation of a second team over which he has no authority, when the second team is in a turf war with him or is simply underperforming in ways over which he has no control—“control” being a variant of authority and latitude.

If you are a recruiter who is conscientious or has a conscience, never place a candidate in that kind of position—in both senses of  “position”, unless you want to set her or him up for failure.

3. Disrespect requiring “wasted” time/energy: A job situation featuring this one is like a cased of holding a grenade in one hand and the pin in the other—guaranteed to make an employee explode, with indignation, resentment and at least borderline rage.

I’ve seen it and inadvertently triggered it. Here’s how it works—rather, doesn’t work: A supervisor tells or otherwise indirectly suggests to a staff member that because she failed to do something satisfactorily, she has to do it all over again.

Example: I was lecturing at a university and needed a document from another department—a letter to be sent overseas. One of that department’s secretaries was given the text, typed it up and handed it to me. I looked over this very important letter and gently pointed out that the letter was fine, except that the text wasn’t “justified”—wasn’t square on both sides. Oops…without realizing it, I had just pulled the pin and held on to the grenade. What I did was to take the two deadly steps of this process: First, I seemed to imply she was not a good typist; second, the first step entailed her doing the job over and printing the letter out again.

From an objective point of view, the time involved was a matter of several minutes and the energy negligible. But from her point of view, it was enough of a “waste” of her time to make my other transgression, viz., “criticizing” her, weigh heavily enough on her mind for her to give me a jolting, over-the-line, over-the-top, utterly out-of-place rebuke bordering on a rant.

Given the politics of university administrations, she crossed the line in rudely and disproportionately assailing a faculty member she had just met. A definite no-no, yet clearly one she felt compelled to commit. That’s how inflammatory “disrespect  + wasted time/energy” can be, as combustible as oxygen and hydrogen, lit by an unwary, unaware match like myself or some unwitting boss. Imagine what can happen when the job re-do takes days or weeks, instead of two minutes, such as a tossed business plan.

Once again, the model is a 2-factor model, exactly like the first two in my list. One reason for this pattern is mathematically abstract: To trigger an unexpected “catastrophic” reponse, three variables are the minimum required—two as the triggers, the third as the response.

This is the kind of thinking that underlies a recondite branch of mathematics called “catastrophe theory”, which, in its simplest rendering, “elementary catastrophe theory”, models sudden catastrophic change as caused by some critical combination of two triggers. A field developed in the 1960s and thereafter by the mathematicians Rene Thom and Christopher Zeeman, elementary catastrophe theory has also been used to model and explain prison riots, bulimia and stock market fluctuations,

The most easily understood example is that of a cornered wild animal, say, a feisty animal like a badger. Up to a point, the badgerish animal may retreat. But once the cornering threat crosses a certain critical but unpredictable point in approaching it, the animal will suddenly reverse its course and attack. The two controlling variables are the animal’s fear and rage, themselves modified by the distance between the badger-beast and the threat. The response variable is the continuum from flight to fight calibrated in degrees of aggressive engagement—flight being zero, fight-to-the-death being the maximum.

4. Blocking “Freeze” and “Flight”: In engaging the university secretary, I was oblivious to my crossing her line as I increasingly made her feel “badgered”. The two controlling variables in her case were the perceived degree of disrespect and the perceived waste of her time and energy—ultimately involving my wasting my breath.

In the “catastrophe cusp” modeling of this situation and all of the above, both variables have to reach critical levels before the catastrophic response occurs. Had I merely been unintentionally “disrespectful” and said that I would re-do the letter, there would have been no agitated response from her—likewise, if I the file had been accidentally deleted by her.

A more general variant of this office scenario is the “blocked freeze and fight” script. Threatened animals normally attempt one of three things: fight, flight or freeze—the latter like a vigilant motionless rabbit waiting for the hunting fox to leave.

Given that quitting corresponds to flight, the controlling variables become the degree of fight and the degree of freeze that can be employed to overcome the threat or the stressor. If one of them approaches zero, e.g., fighting back and confronting the boss, is not possible, then perhaps the other, simply freezing, like a deer-in-the-headlights deer, until the crisis has past may work.

But, if freezing and fighting are not viable options, e.g., the boss continues to oppress or frustrate the employee, the 2-factor catastrophe cusp model (shown above) predicts the employee will quit. In this instance, imagine that as the critical combination of inability to fight and inability to flee increase, the employee is driven over the edge, crashes onto the “quitting zone” and quits, perhaps to repeat the uphill cycle at the next job.

This is a simplification to the extent that the employee may find alternative coping strategies, such as “reframing”—seeing the boss, the job or herself in a different, more comfortable light. Nonetheless, it remains true that, with this kind of catastrophe dynamic, it takes two to detonate as well as to tango—two variables, plus the response, not just two people.


In recruitment, such 2-factor catastrophes could take the form of a career recruiter’s helpfully advising a candidate to re-do his resume and then somehow never hearing from the candidate again. In this case, mine and most others, intent matters so much less than the respondent’s perception. The implied criticism is the pin, the re-do, the grenade.

In all of the foregoing instances, quitting (or severe health-endangering stress) is precipitated by two controlling variable reaching critical threshold levels, thereby triggering the quitting response. You would be well advised to reflect on any placed recruit who has quit, to try to identify what those variables may have been, given the likelihood that the catastrophe theory model applies. Similarly, if an job applicant suddenly disappears, consider the possibility that you did two things and to a degree that, in combination, were enough to make her give up on you.

One final application: Having made this article long and deep enough—length and depth being the two controlling factors, I predict that you will now quit reading.

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