Breaking Down Quiet Quitting In The Workplace

Jan 25, 2023 9 Min Read
A woman stressed/burnout from work
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Image is from freepik.com by @yanalya

The Key to Addressing Quiet Quitting is First to be Aware of it

Quiet quitting has become somewhat of a buzzword in the industry as of late. The term itself seems to have been coined by Bryan Creely on a TikTok video (though it’s hard to confirm these things) in early 2022. You could even go further back as there was some buzz in 2021 around a movement in China called the “lying flat” movement, which meant the same thing. 

According to Gallup, quiet quitting means “people are not going above and beyond at their workplace”.  It doesn’t mean that people are not showing up at work – it’s not quitting in that sense.  Basically, it means people are just doing the bare minimum to meet their job description. 

Read more: Is Quiet Quitting Real?

If I were to define it, I would say you could consider it as “disengagement” at work.  It’s not someone who is actively disengaged, but also not someone who is actively engaged either.

Though the buzzword is new, the concept itself is most definitely not. We even had disengagement in relationships before we even had it at work. Think about couples who are romantically disengaged or indifferent – that’s also a form of quiet quitting.  Again, this is not people who are disappearing from the relationship – but they are just going through the motions because the cost of leaving is too high. Bring that to the work environment and that’s what we are talking about today. 

Now if you look at the Gallup surveys on employee engagement, you will see that in the last 20 years, engaged employees hover around 25-35% and actively disengaged around 15-20%, which means you have about half of your workforce on average that are disengaged.  And this trend has been there for 20 years. 

The pandemic did play a big role in bringing it to the forefront though. As remote work became popular, people became more distanced from their organisations, and therefore more disengaged. It’s definitely harder to engage a remote workforce. Also, organisations are becoming more decentralised, and are expecting teams to be self-running and autonomous.  Management within organisations are using less command and control and trying to trust teams to do what’s best for the company.  In those kinds of organisations, quiet quitting hurts them even more, because they probably don’t even know it’s happening.

The other thing that happened with the pandemic is the rise of the gig economy.  So there’s another phrase that has been coined recently.  I first read about it in an Inc article – called clandestine contracting.  Employees are now having secret gig jobs to supplement their income or as an alternative to their day job.  Sometimes it’s a passion project, sometimes it’s an entrepreneur starting out while having the safety of a 9-5 job, or sometimes it’s just a side income.  With those becoming easier to pursue, perhaps, quiet quitting becomes an easier option to choose.  Because you can direct your energies elsewhere.

Ultimately, we have a certain amount of energy, and we choose where to use it. I’m of the opinion that quiet quitting isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

Is your job a calling, career, or a contract?

To understand, let’s look at different types of jobs. A job can either be a “calling” (these are usually passion related like artists, or the clergy, or sometimes even medical professionals), but a job can also be a “career” (where you get great satisfaction in excelling in it), but it can also be a “contract” (where you are exchanging tasks and time for money). There’s nothing wrong with that. Some people work to live, and others live to work.  The problem is when there’s misaligned expectations. 

Sometimes it’s a disconnect within the individual itself, but often it’s between the employer and the employee. I remember having an employee who was absolutely brilliant but tagged as a difficult employee. People treated him like a problem, and he acted the part.  When I managed to get through to him, I realised that he just didn’t want to do more than the bare minimum.  People knew he was capable of more, and even he knew that. He was truly quite smart. But it wasn’t for him.  Once I expected that and treated him like someone doing a job for a contract, he was a perfectly good team member.  Of course, I had to explain to him how increments work and that if he doesn’t show the ability to do more, then there will be stagnation. Having this conversation with the affected person is crucial. If they accept the consequences, then all is good.  He wanted to prioritise his family, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s all about alignment. 

He didn’t want to do more, and I changed my expectations of him as well.  The problem with him was that because of the misaligned expectations, he became actively disengaged and troublesome. But once the expectations were aligned, he wasn’t. He wasn’t actively engaged either, but that was manageable. 

 “Age wrinkles the skin, quitting wrinkles the soul” 

As an individual, if you are aware of what you are doing, then perhaps quiet quitting is acceptable. I hope that it’s because you have passion and energy that you are directing elsewhere.  Or if you are quiet quitting temporarily because you are burnt out or there are other priority situations in your life right now, that’s acceptable. But the problem is that it can creep into something more – it can become permanent, without you realising it. Is that acceptable? Well, it depends on your outlook on life I suppose. There’s a quote by Douglas MacArthur that goes “age wrinkles the skin, quitting wrinkles the soul”. What it’s implying is that once you build the habit of quitting anything, or not trying your best, you might get used to it and it can affect your outlook and become the way you handle any challenge or situation. 

Photograph of Douglas MacArthur, ca. 1945 - Image source

Given this, it is imperative that people are aware of it. It might be alright if the decision was made consciously. Quiet quitting without being aware or not wanting to address the real problem by avoiding decisions or confrontations or mismanaged expectations is probably not acceptable. Remember, it can go from disengagement to active disengagement quickly. 

Solutions

They key to addressing quiet quitting is first to be aware of it, and secondly to have the conversations around it to align.

As an individual, if you find yourself procrastinating, avoiding tasks or feeling apathy – that’s a sign that you need to find out why and see if it needs to be addressed. For an employer, what kind of tools do you have that tells you how your employees are doing.  There are great micro pulse survey tools, like Budaya, out in the market.  They give you Employee Intelligence.

With data, you can get insights into what is causing disengagement with employees.  It could be misalignment with company values, or workload and stress, or it could even be their relationship with their colleagues or managers. This data will be your guide into crafting a solution. 

Managers also play a key role in this. HBR did a study to see how manager performance affects quiet quitting.  The correlation was quite high. Two conclusions from the research:

  • Even the best of managers had quiet quitters – so that tells me it’s not only the managers’ fault.
  • The best managers had 3 to 4x less quiet quitters – so that tells me managers do play a big part in this.

Managers are the most important link to engaging employees. Listening to them, motivating them, and finding ways to maximise their strengths are all part of the process. Managers need to build bonds and trust with their teams. 

As you may have gathered, I really don’t like the phrase “quiet quitting”, as it seems negative, with the root being quitting. Ultimately, we need to look at quite quitters as not just coasting, but instead as doing just enough work to meet expectations. If they are not, then that’s a performance issue, and needs to be dealt with. But if they are meeting expectations but not going above and beyond – that shouldn’t be an issue. Start by not looking at it as a fault but look at ways to improve employee engagement in general, and things may move in the right direction. 

As an individual, remember that life has a lot to offer. So, if you find yourself quiet quitting, try to question why, and where you would like to spend your energy instead.  If your job is not a career, then it’s just a job.  Where else are you going to put your efforts? Else coasting or quitting may become something that you do everywhere as a nasty habit. 

As a manager, try to put people in positions where they can succeed.  Where they can find their ikigai. Where intrinsic and extrinsic motivations can come together to motivate someone, so that they themselves want to do more. You can force them to do that. And as long as they are not actively disengaged, they still have a lot of value to offer.

 

A leader needs tools to effectively  engage with employees in this challenging and changing times. Check out Budaya. It has amazing analytics and also provides activities for employees to be fully immersed in the organisation's culture and values. To find out more, click here or email budaya@leaderonomics.com

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Leadership

Tags: Hard Talk, HR, Engagement

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Sashe is certain that his 18-year career in IT was about leadership and not technology. He is currently the head of Leaderonomics Digital and ponders the use of technology in his free time.

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