Quiet quitting: what can we do as managers and HR professionals?

Oct 8, 2022
Posted in CULTURE
Oct 8, 2022 Adriana Blazej

According to the Gallup Institute, so-called “Quiet Quitters” make up at least 50% of American workers. The percentage of those “actively disengaged” has risen from 14% in 2020 to 18% in 2022. Keeping employees engaged is thus becoming a major challenge for employers, especially as a new generation enters the job market. 

The scale of this phenomenon can also be seen in the public debate. Quiet quitting – rolled out by the media and picked up by many social network users – is perhaps the hottest topic concerning the labor market in recent months. Like the Great Resignation a year earlier – it puzzles, worries and arouses both discussion or irritation among employers and HR professionals. 

A new phenomenon without a clear definition… 

It is difficult to talk about something that is not clearly defined and understood. And quiet quitting is not so clear – everyone understands it slightly differently. This, and the lack of cross-sectional data from which to draw conclusions, is for me the most difficult thing about the “quiet quitting” debate. The topic stirs up a lot of emotion, and one of the reasons for this is that the parties in the discussion do not have a coherent definition of what they are talking about. 

The basic premise of quiet quitting is “the reduction or lack of commitment of employees to their work.” While this sounds pretty clear, there are many possibilities for interpretation. A decrease in relation to what? Who determines a decrease in commitment and how? And is engagement in a job always (in every position and industry) necessary to fulfill one’s contract with an employer? 

More people add their understanding of the subject and imbue the phenomenon through the prism of their own experiences or phenomena familiar to them from their home market. I myself have witnessed an argument in which one side talked about “laziness and lack of ambition” and the other about “fulfilling the tasks they have in their contract with the employer.” It’s not hard to guess that their conversation led to nothing. 

…and without solid data

Quiet quitting is still waiting for a comprehensive study. This has been undertaken in part by experts from the Gallup Institute – according to data from their analysis, “quiet quitters” make up at least 50% of the U.S. workforce. The percentage of “actively unengaged” in Q2 2022 rose to 18% (from 14% in 2020). The ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is now 1.8 to 1, the lowest in almost a decade. These figures indicate that the scale of the phenomenon is huge. But do we know what exactly it concerns?

The definitions of quiet quitting that appear most often boil down to 3 aspects:

  • I do only as much as my contract with the organization obligates me to do.” This is rigidly following the duties of the job description; no more, no less.
  • I engage, but only during working hours.” This meets the employer’s expectations (or even exceeds them) but only during working hours.
  • I do the bare minimum that allows me to stay at work.” This is below employer expectations but doing just enough to not get fired.

What the above 3 options have in common is a move away from defining one’s life only through the prism of what one does professionally. What we have understood so far as work-life balance, i.e., distributing involvement more or less equally, takes a new form here. Employees who belong to the so-called “quiet quitters” group engage less in work to have more space for non-work activities. It is in their private lives that they set their priorities. They also take a more conscious approach to mental health topics – with their mental well-being in mind, they try to keep stressful situations to a minimum. 

In an interview conducted by Brene Brown, Dr. Donald Sull said: “your boss may have a greater impact on your health than your doctor.” This is a truth that employers and those responsible for organizational culture need to be aware of. They have a great responsibility to create healthy workplaces. The approach of avoiding difficult situations that the “quitters” prefer may not be the solution. But it sends an important signal to us. 

“Issue” of Generation Z?

There is another dimension to the discussion – some commentators point out that what we are dealing with is simply a characteristic and a “problem” with Generation Z. Publications on TikTok or Instagram show that young people have a need to convey their message in response to “hustle culture.” The term “quiet quitting” spread rapidly on TikTok after the publication of a viral video by user @zaidlepplin. “Work is not your life,” he says. “If your efforts are not noticed and properly rewarded – stop trying, it’s not worth it.” 

@zaidleppelin

On quiet quitting #workreform

♬ original sound – ruby

This shows that young people are tired of both 1) the default expectation of being highly committed to work and 2) the lack of recognition for their contributions. So they take a step back, and stand closer to the “exit door.” This does not mean, however, that they are completely unwilling to realize themselves at work, and are not looking for engagement and development there.

Research studies show a slightly deeper perspective: “Gen Z values freedom in work, not only in terms of time but also in the type of work itself. As mentioned before, they enjoy being able to work, as well as optimizing their skills and abilities, which shows that having a meaningful job is important for them. They do what they love to do. It is important to identify what exactly makes it a great and meaningful job for Gen Z to motivate and enhance their job satisfaction.”

Thus, it cannot be said that the phenomenon of quiet quitting applies only to Generation Z, although it must be acknowledged that they are more assertive about expectations and aware, for example, in terms of mental health, than previous generations.

Pandemic vs. belonging 

The pandemic and the shift to remote work have reduced the sense of belonging to the companies we work for. Remote and hybrid work has shown that you don’t have to be in the office at specific hours to do your job. On the one hand, we have more freedom and flexibility to combine work with other areas of my life, while on the other, we lose contact with our team members. It’s a huge challenge for managers to maintain this primal need for belonging (which strongly influences engagement) in hybrid work. What also sticks out in the content on quiet quitting is the lack of space (perhaps also skills) to be able to tell early enough about engagement problems. Red flags in the form of, for example, fatigue, a lack of a sense of development, or the inability to talk to one’s supervisor, are left hanging in a vacuum. Unfortunately, all too often managers don’t give employees the space to address topics such as a lack of understanding of the organization’s purpose, difficulty communicating with others on the team, or a sense of missing the point of their work, among others. 

The key is the well-nurtured company culture  

This, in turn, is a challenge in the area of organizational culture. Research by Donald Sull and Charlie Sull described in an article in MIT Sloan titled “Toxic Culture Is Driving the Great Resignation” showed that it is a poor organizational culture that is the leading cause of departures in organizations. As they conclude in their study: “A toxic corporate culture, for example, is 10.4 times more powerful than compensation in predicting a company’s attrition rate compared with its industry.”

Key contributing factors of toxic cultures are:

  • Lack of inclusiveness
  • Disrespectfulness
  • Unethical behavior 
  • Cut-throat approaches
  • Abusive managers

At the same time, at the level of declarations (e.g., in external communications) organizations emphasize that these are elements you won’t find in a given company. As many as 80% of the surveyed workplaces make their core values public and talk about the healthy, mature principles that make up their organizational culture. If there’s an inconsistency at this level – declarations vs. real behavior – employees will immediately discover it and connect it to toxic behavior they simply don’t want to condone. And, while quiet quitting is not about quitting altogether, the reasons why it occurs and the sources of the Great Resignation are very similar. 

5 things we can do to nurture employee engagement

But what can managers do to reduce the risk of quiet quitting in organizations? Below is a suggestion of the 5 most important, from my perspective, actions that team managers should focus on:

  • Eliminate unethical behaviors

A toxic organizational culture is one where we give permission for discrimination, and unequal treatment, and where we downplay bullying and violent communication. In addition, we exacerbate this condition if we talk about organizational values and culture, where there is no place for such actions and behaviors to show the opposite. The role of founders, CEOs, and managers is to be role models in creating ethical principles of cooperation. With our specific behaviors, we must show employees that our organization is a place where they can feel safe. This is also confirmed by research conducted by D. Sull and Ch. Sull – feeling respected at work is the most important element of organizational culture for employees.

  • Ensure a good culture fit

It’s not surprising that if employees don’t believe in what we do as a company, and therefore in what they do individually, they won’t be engaged. Aligning the vision of employees with that of the company will help create a culture in which all individuals in the company are working toward a common goal and are motivated to do so.

Finding the right fit for your organization starts at the recruitment stage, but listening to current employees and working with them to agree on the best way forward as a team will build a more cohesive and collaborative culture, resulting in a successful company.

  • Take care of the communication 

And by communication, I don’t just mean talking with employees, but also (and perhaps above all) listening – noticing the real needs of employees and managing their needs. To do this, we need to create space for conversations: set up regular 1:1s to hear our people’s opinions, and views, and to see if the employees have everything they need to do their job effectively. We should give an update on cases that have started in the past. Also, be clear about your expectations and goals to be met. Only making sure we are on the same page on a regular basis can keep us from feeling that we have no influence on an employee’s commitment to their job. 

  • Foster a sense of stability and security at work

As leaders, we should provide a framework of security for all employees. Do we have clearly defined responsibilities within the company, a knowledge base and written down repeatable processes? Does my team know our goal, development opportunities, and who they can turn to with concerns about task performance? Do my people know that I am open to feedback and care about receiving it regularly? Can they tell me that they feel unwell or need a change? This is probably the hardest part because, as leaders, we also need to be very aware of whether we ourselves feel stable and secure. 

  • Mental health awareness

When we say that mental health is just as important as physical health, we are not simply talking about awareness. It must be followed by actual behaviors and actions. This means that, as managers, we don’t avoid mental health topics and normalize talking about them at work. We give space for employees to share what they are struggling with, while not stepping into the role of a therapist. If there is a need, I know how a person on my team can get support from a specialist. We should also actively build that part of the organizational culture that is geared toward psychoeducation. This includes giving the knowledge and tools that will enable employees to take care of their own mental well-being.

Final thoughts

One more thing intrigues me: if quiet quitting is about a lack of commitment and meeting only the minimum expectations and, at the same time, the expectation of the employer is to engage the employee, where is the limit of tolerance on one side and the other? When does quiet quitting turn into real quitting or firing, and what tools should we use to be able to define this framework? 

The fact that studies on quiet quitting are multiplying intensively and there is no single and consistent conclusion on the horizon is a fact. Likewise, it is a fact that the mechanisms behind this catchy name are not new. We can wonder endlessly what exactly the slogan conveys and whether it is indeed a new trend that will dominate the labor market. We can share our own experiences in the comments on LinkedIn and draw conclusions from the analyses that have already been made. 

In doing so, we must not lose sight of the most important perspective: the organizational culture of the company where we work. The answer to whether quiet quitting and what is its source and consequence is something real and disturbing among our employees will be found in our own organization. 

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