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Quiet Quitting

Issue 73: Sept 15, 2022

We’ve all become seduced by the power of digital media to shift the cultural conversation in real time. Case in point: A cascade of reports about Quiet Quitting hit our inboxes after it was socialized on TikTok in July. It soon became the darling of cultural observers and journalists … and the bane of HR teams. So, what’s the fuss?  Ambivalent employment has been around for ages; quiet quitting has gained traction as the corollary to The Great Resignation. Just as a reminder, The Great Resignation “saw an average of nearly 4 million employees leave their jobs each month in 2021 amid clashes over flexibility and a widespread reevaluation of how work should fit into their lives. And it’s also gaining steam now at a moment of peak tension between managers and employees, as many companies prepare for another push to bring workers back to offices,” according to The Washington Post.

Quitting Quietly

Quiet quitters have seemingly become the Silent Resistance. Technically, quiet quitting is doing the least amount of work possible. It doesn’t necessarily mean employees have checked out, but they are definitely setting boundaries and controlling their engagement levels. With a workforce doing the bare minimum based on their ethos that they work to live, not live to work, the resounding choruses of needing life/work balance have shattered traditionalists’ definition and opinion of “work.”

In deconstructing the quiet-quitting phenomenon, a CNBC report quotes Michael Timmes, a senior HR specialist at Insperity, “There have always been employees who react to burnout by doing the bare minimum. Today, this is being driven by Gen Z, however, it is evident across all generations.” Propelled by the disillusion of many younger workers as being perceived as cogs in a wheel, it’s a passive-aggressive way to make a statement. Often without any consequences. There’s a practical aspect to it: not all employees can quit – there may be nowhere to go. Quiet quitting buys some time and as long as workers are doing the minimum without criticism from management, they pull it off. To the chagrin of older colleagues, quiet quitters are demonstrating minimal emotional investment in work and/or are seeking to define their concept of a career outside the context of a traditional organizational ladder. The attitude is also a manifestation of anti-ambition, another millennial/Gen Z touchstone.

Let’s take a broader view and consider what The Guardian recently reported “What is happening is that tired, overworked, burnt-out working-class people are taking back their agency and refusing jobs and working conditions that are unsuitable for them. The latest of these acts of resistance is quiet quitting: the newly coined term for when workers only do the job that they’re being paid to do, without taking on any extra duties, or participating in extracurriculars at work.”

How Did We Get Here?

We often write about the Industrial Age mindset of organizational leadership when individuals were viewed as machine parts. This harkens back to a time when the amount of product that could be produced correlated directly to the number of individuals it took to make it. If there were fewer individuals, the expectation was to continue to produce at a level that had been previously reached without the recognition and care that those who remained were working harder to make up the deficit.

That antiquated mindset still has a hold in many of today’s organizations, despite the reality that it is increasingly harder for organizations to recruit and retain the staff they need. A disconnect exists between meeting a goal and the number of skilled individuals required to achieve it. It’s as if those two concepts exist in parallel universes without the recognition that they are actually connected and dependent upon each other.

Most organizations are contending with persistent worker shortages, freezing hiring given inflationary and recessionary pressures on their bottom line; the inability to recruit skilled individuals; and a lack of clarity of operational needs, processes, and dependencies to achieve goals and outcomes. All the while, leadership is ignoring the psychological impacts resulting from the pandemic, a mental shift of reprioritization of wants and needs, and the recognition that working harder and longer than others doesn’t often benefit employees in both the short and longer term.

Let’s add in an inherent societal norm in the United States that working hard and being successful is modeled on Type-A behaviors. When individuals don’t exhibit these traits, they are criticized. There is a stigma against those who don’t work hard, build a career at all costs, and ensure they are noticed by those whose opinions matter. Managers have been trained to believe that the more they push, the more they can expect. Simply stated, they believe that everything is possible because there are always those who will work harder and longer than others to achieve the goals and outcomes.

Time still is the key measurement to assess worker performance: the more hours, therefore the more committed and hard-working one appears to be. It is a nonsensical metric since there is little correlation between the number of  hours worked and meeting or exceeding performance goals.

In the shift that occurred during and then post-pandemic, it appears that what organizational leadership wants and expects and what they are comfortable with conform to an antiquated model. Traditional leadership has an outdated perception of how organizations should be run and how a workforce should be managed. In fact, this mindset is out of step with how individuals perceive their commitment to what is considered work and a professional career. This reassessment of what is important and what life should be about is contrary to the expectations of organizational leadership.

Quiet quitting may seem like the new buzzword, but this shift began to emerge some time ago. We see far too often where management’s strategic goals and aspirations are out of step with the reality of the skills and capabilities of a workforce. And where the organizational operations and infrastructure are not in line with expected goals. Or situations in which what infrastructure does exist is so broken that it cannot serve as a solid foundation on which to build. In every case, the workforce is seen to be the group that must make it happen, even when the tools, processes, or even support simply don’t exist.

Quiet Quitting Is Not a Level Playing Field

There are some inherent biases that are revealed by quiet quitting and despite society’s collective effort to confront and address DEI, many workers remain particularly impacted. The Guardian reports, “Forcing employees to do extra, unpaid work is wrong. The debate around quiet quitting raises uncomfortable questions about who is actually doing this unpaid labor.” Economist Lise Vesterlund says, “Women, for example, are disproportionately asked and expected to take on work that no one else wants to do, like planning the office party, attending to that time-consuming client, keeping track of employee birthdays, and so on. On the other hand, it’s very easy for men to say no, because there are no consequences.” McKinsey research reports 72 women are promoted for every 100 men, and that ratio widens to 68 Latina women and 58 Black women for every 100 men (of all races and ethnicities).

Melissa Swift, U.S. transformation leader at Mercer Research, adds, “Women and under-represented groups shoulder a disproportionate amount of “office housework.” Vesterlund adds, “Racialized women bear the brunt of this extra labor, with studies showing that women of color do more office housework and have less access to glamour work (i.e. work that gets you noticed by higher-ups, and can lead to your next promotion) than white men do.” Quiet quitting becomes understandable when “these same women of color are also more likely to experience burnout, and are less likely to feel comfortable talking about their mental health in the workplace than their white counterparts. And therein lies the cruel irony of quiet quitting; the people most likely to be burnt out are also the people least likely to feel entitled to a reprieve like quiet quitting,” she adds.

On the other hand, quiet quitting may not be an option for many workers, particularly women from underrepresented communities, reports Axios. Reporter Hope King adds, “People who already have to go above and beyond just to get noticed are afraid that pulling back on extra labor could do major harm to their careers.”

Gallup research reports that at least half of the U.S. workforce is quiet quitting. The report cites that the workplace during the pandemic got worse for younger workers. “The trend toward quiet quitting — the idea spreading virally on social media that millions of people are not going above and beyond at work and just meeting their job description — could get worse.  U.S. employee engagement took another step backward during the second quarter of 2022, with the proportion of engaged workers remaining at 32% but the proportion of actively disengaged increasing to 18%. The ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is now 1.8 to 1, the lowest in almost a decade.”

Changing the Culture

In our consulting practice, we work with clients to help them acknowledge and accept that the next-gen workforce is serious about changing workplace dynamics and insisting on balance between life and work. Multigenerational work cultures must adapt and find ways to bridge the gaps while meeting each generation’s needs in nuanced ways. Taylor Telford writes in The Washington Post that “employees who are quietly quitting are also likely the ones who have been silently suffering in a psychologically unsafe environment.” It has been widely reported that the aftereffects of the pandemic have revealed some significant cracks in workplace infrastructure and culture in being sensitive to a workforce that is reporting mental health issues. Is this all new? Not really, but shared experiences, like a pandemic, create a village of individuals who are now more open to share their mental states and open to what they have been experiencing. There is a new sense of community and workers feel supported physically and digitally by others who have worked in challenging situations.

Our collective shared experience has also introduced other issues and challenges. Just think about the transition back to the office. Empty offices on Fridays and Mondays can be depressing. Screen fatigue is pervasive. Remote screen surveillance to monitor workers at home is intrusive. Next-gen employees believe that working differently doesn’t mean they’re working less. They want to change the culture to prevent burnout and make work meaningful – to have a shared purpose. They expect employers to communicate expectations, conduct coherent performance reviews and welcome participation in an open, authentic ecosystem. Quiet quitters are demonstrating that what used to be a passive-aggressive challenge of work-life balance became a direct request. Now it’s not even a request anymore. It’s a demand.

Managing the quiet quitter has its challenges. From a positive perspective, quiet quitting can be beneficial in terms of providing more time for employees to pursue passion projects, Timmes explains.  “The employee may be able to think more outside the box, feel more refreshed and become more efficient in the hours they are working, Quiet quitting can give employees short-term relief from a work environment that is overly focused on outcomes,” he adds.

On the other hand, employers are faced with reevaluating their operations in the face of widespread quiet quitting (via The Washington Post):

  • Is the work we pay for getting done?
  • Do we have relevant, quantifiable measures in place to judge the quality of that work?
  • If the output is good by those measures, does it matter where, when and how it’s being done?

NPR reports that workplace culture has gone through so many changes during the pandemic that “some workers are negotiating for better work conditions and benefits with newfound leverage. They have made changes in their work lives, from how they dress to their career field, to align more closely with their personal values. Quiet quitting is in line with a larger reevaluation of how work fits into our lives and not the other way around. As Gen Z is entering the workforce, the idea of quiet quitting has gained traction as Gen Zers deal with burnout and never-ending demands.”

The Anti-Ambition Team Member

A disengaged workforce can wreak havoc in the workplace culture. Since so much work requires teamwork and collaboration, quiet quitters can become a liability. Timmes adds, “From an office perspective, quiet quitting can cause conflicts between employees, as some employees will feel others aren’t carrying their weight. Overall, this can backfire on the employee and can also create a wave of inadequate and underdeveloped employees.”

Who’s to Blame?

Gallup states it’s clear that quiet quitting is a symptom of poor management. Their research suggests that it’s key to address manager engagement. “Only one in three managers are engaged at work. Senior leadership needs to reskill managers to win in the new hybrid environment.” Next, “managers must learn how to have conversations to help employees reduce disengagement and burnout. Only managers are in a position to know employees as individuals — their life situation, strengths and goals.”

Gallup adds that the best requirement and habit for successful managers to develop is having one meaningful conversation per week with each team member for 15-30 minutes. Additionally, “Managers need to create accountability for individual performance, team collaboration and customer value — and employees must see how their work contributes to the organization’s larger purpose.”  Ed Zitron, publisher of  Where’s Your Ed At, believes, “If you want people to go above and beyond, compensate them for it. Pay them for the extra work. Show them the direct path from ‘I am going above and beyond to I am being rewarded for doing so.’”

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, writing for The Harvard Business Review, state that quiet quitting is about bad bosses, not bad employees. Their data indicates that quiet quitting is usually less about an employee’s willingness to work harder and more creatively, and more about a manager’s ability to build a relationship with their employees where they are not counting the minutes until quitting time.

The research term they give for those willing to give extra effort is “discretionary effort.” Its effect on organizations can be profound: They say, “If you have 10 direct reports and they each give 10% additional effort, the net results of that additional effort are increased productivity. We found that the least effective managers have three to four times as many people who fall in the quiet quitting category compared to the most effective leaders. These managers had 14% of their direct reports quietly quitting, and only 20% were willing to give extra effort. But those who were rated the highest at balancing results with relationships saw 62% of their direct reports willing to give extra effort, while only 3% were quietly quitting.”

Feeling undervalued and unappreciated has profound effects. The authors add, “It’s possible that the managers were biased, or they engaged in behavior that was inappropriate. Employees’ lack of motivation was a reaction to the actions of the manager. Most mid-career employees have also worked for a leader for whom they had a strong desire to do everything possible to accomplish goals and objectives. Occasionally working late or starting early was not resented because this manager inspired them.”

The Fix

The Washington Post reports that meaningful changes result from making workloads more sustainable and making sure employees feel a forward sense of progress, beyond just career development opportunities. “People are fulfilled by gaining new skills and experiences, having greater control over their jobs, and feeling genuinely appreciated. Employers need to offer opportunities for advancement and create a culture where people feel like they’re encouraged to put work in perspective versus make work their entire lives. It’s important to recognize that people can be engaged and motivated at work without needing to revolve their life and identity around it.”

The HBR authors state it’s easy to place the blame for quiet quitting on lazy or unmotivated workers, but instead, their research tells us to become reflective and recognize “that individuals want to give their energy, creativity, time, and enthusiasm to the organizations and leaders that deserve it.”

They found the most important factor is trust. When they analyzed data from their research when direct reports trusted their leader, they also assumed that the manager cared about them and was concerned about their wellbeing.  Furthermore, their research linked trust to three specific behaviors:

  1. Having positive relationships with all of your direct reports. This means you look forward to connecting and enjoy talking to them. Some team members make it easy to have a positive relationship. Others are more challenging. Look for and discover common ground with these team members to build mutual trust.
  2. In addition to being totally honest, leaders need to deliver on what they promise. Most leaders believe they are more consistent than others perceive them.
  3. Do you know your job well? Are you out of date on any aspects of your work? Do others trust your opinions and your advice? Experts can bring clarity, a path forward, and clear insight to build trust.

Quiet Firing

There’s a flip side to quitting quietly: being quietly fired. What does that mean? It’s when employers intentionally treat you so badly, you can’t wait to leave your job. Essentially, they manage employees out rather than up. DeAndre Brown was one of the first people to mention the term in a TikTok video in August describing quiet firing as “a workplace that fails to reward an employee for their contributions to an organization, forcing them to leave their jobs.” As Entrepreneur describes it, “It’s sort of like someone who wants to break up with you but doesn’t have the courage to do it themselves.” According to recruiter Bonnie Dilber on LinkedIn, quiet firing “works great for companies…eventually you’ll either feel so incompetent, isolated, and unappreciated that you’ll go find a new job, and they never have to deal with a development plan or offer severance.” Time Magazine adds that the idea of an employer effectively forcing an employee to resign isn’t entirely new. “Constructive discharge—whereby an employer actively makes working conditions for an employee so unpleasant that they quit, has been widely practiced for many years. This could fall under the umbrella term of quiet firing, but so would neglecting an employee or divesting time, opportunities or resources away from a worker in a more passive approach that would also prompt a resignation.”

The signs are clear if you’re paying attention and connecting all the dots. Tips via HuffPost and Forbes:

  • Years without a raise or promotion.
  • Shifting responsibilities that require less skill.
  • Withdrawing leadership opportunities.
  • Your boss is MIA for important conversations.
  • You have been given an impossible performance improvement plan.
  • Your workload increases to an unmanageable level.
  • Your job title or description changed.
  • You are asked to start documenting everything.
  • Your manager sabotages your career growth.
  • Your boss never gives you positive feedback.
  • You receive poor performance reviews without an apparent reason.
  • You are suddenly left out of the loop.
  • Your favorite projects are being reassigned.
  • You are consistently given the worst tasks.

Quiet Success 

So, quiet quitting, or whatever we want to call it, is a much bigger issue than many may want to admit. This correlates to effective change management and transformation that is made possible by contextual analysis; market orientation; operational assessment and setting a shared purpose that realistically reflects what is needed; what is possible; and what human resources are necessary to experience achievement.

An 80-hour week is a thing of the past. So is reliance on a few key workers while everyone else just tows the line. Recognizing the criticality of the human factor, our inherent biases, our failure to actively listen, our struggle with being open, having courage, and having critical conversations are all rising to a boiling point. We have pushed too far, based our plans and thoughts on a false reality, and continued to rely on technology as a silver bullet that solves all problems.

Quiet quitting is a clear and present reminder that success is the result of empathy, sensitivity to individuals (not everyone lumped together), and the ability to operate with a collaborative shared purpose that doesn’t sacrifice the individual with the demands of the group.

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