Culture & Leadership: Don’t dismiss Quiet Quitting
Is quiet quitting a legitimate concern, or just a social media trend? Does it deserve the attention of business leaders?
It was a viral TikTok video that first sparked the discussion around “quiet quitting”, a concept has gained a lot of traction over the past few weeks. Strangely this has nothing to do with quitting one’s job. Quiet quitting is when employees do just enough work to meet the requirements of their job description. As an article in the Harvard Business Review explains:
Quiet quitters continue to fulfill their primary responsibilities, but they’re less willing to engage in activities known as citizenship behaviors: no more staying late, showing up early, or attending non-mandatory meetings.
Following the social media chatter, a slew of quiet-quitting videos have popped up online. Many ponder the importance of setting work-life boundaries and talk about de-linking their personal identity from their jobs. Some advocate protecting time for loved ones and hobbies, while others focus on simply getting through the workday on autopilot.
This week, my posts put the spotlight on “quiet quitting”. Is this a legitimate concern, or simply an overhyped buzzword? Do leaders need to bring their attention to this phenomenon and take steps to address it?
One view is that this so-called trend isn’t really a problem at all. If employees are coming in to work and satisfactorily completing all the tasks in their job description, then aren’t they working exactly as expected? As Sarah O’Connor points out in her Financial Times piece:
Some people will always be driven by ambition, enjoyment, perfectionism or insecurity to do more than is asked of them, but if you expect everyone to do that, by definition it isn’t “above and beyond” any more.
O’Connor goes on to note that a business model built on employees putting in extra effort is, in fact, highly vulnerable. She gives the example of rail operator Avanti, which relied heavily on workers volunteering for additional shifts during their time off. This year, when employees refused to put in time beyond their contracted hours, the result was massive train disruptions across the UK. Calling for a drier, more contractual understanding of jobs, O’Connor dismisses the panic around quiet quitting:
At its heart, the “quiet quitting” kerfuffle speaks to an unhealthy understanding of the relationship between companies and their staff. Employers don’t need to cater to employees’ every psychological need, and employees don’t need to be passionate about their employers.
Others feel that quiet quitting has been around forever – it just has a new attention-grabbing name. As Derek Thompson notes in his article for The Atlantic:
As a workplace phenomenon, workers’ mild disengagement is about as novel as cubicles, lunch breaks, and bleary-eyed colleagues stopping by your workstation to mutter, “Mondays, amirite?” What the kids are now calling “quiet quitting” was, in previous and simpler decades, simply known as “having a job.”
There are, however, several experts who feel that quiet quitting speaks to a serious problem in the workforce. As the above-mentioned HBR article explains:
The reality is that most jobs can’t be fully defined in a formal job description or contract, so organizations rely on employees to step up to meet extra demands as needed. As such…many leaders we’ve spoken with have argued that losing employees who want to leave is difficult, but having them not quit is even worse, as their unwillingness to go the extra mile often increases the burden on their colleagues to take on extra work instead.
Companies seeking to create a competitive advantage through engaged, passionate and purposeful teams need to pay attention. Why are so many employees feeling this way, and what can be done about it?
A young rebellion
Quiet quitting is most prominent among younger employees. In the US, Gallup surveys show that while engagement is declining across generations, it is lowest among those born in or after 1989. About 54% of employees in this age-group are classified as “not engaged” – a category that overlaps significantly with “quiet quitters”, according to Gallup.
Younger team members tend to assign more importance to aspects like recognition, compensation, purpose and wellbeing. If they don’t find what they’re looking for in their jobs, but are unwilling to leave altogether, then they may detach themselves psychologically from their employer and start coasting through the workday.
Pros and cons of quiet quitting
One’s perspective on this phenomenon is likely to be shaped by their vantage point. Employees have pointed out that quiet quitting doesn’t mean being lazy or not doing your job properly – it simply refers to not overworking yourself to the point of burnout. Many quiet quitters have spoken about how their wellbeing and personal life have improved since they limited themselves to only their assigned duties.
Several leaders, meanwhile, have stated that employees those who are more psychologically invested in their jobs will obviously be favoured for promotions and pay hikes; whereas those who do the bare minimum may be more at risk of layoffs during economic upheavals.
Regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on, this trend has revealed issues that are worth examining. Every organisation today has a significant number of team members that would be classified as “quiet quitters”. If your workforce skews younger, the numbers are bound to be higher.
"Taking on additional tasks outside of their job role usually has a cost for employees, whether in terms of time, energy or personal commitments. In a healthy organisation, these negatives tend to be offset by benefits like career growth, sense of fulfilment and increased social capital.
The fact that many employees are outright rejecting this trade-off suggests an imbalance. Does this mean employers are demanding increased effort without offering adequate returns?
Leaders need to ensure that quiet quitting doesn’t become the default setting in their teams. They can take steps to increase engagement, safeguard productivity, and motivate citizenship behaviours. Here are five suggestions for managers to consider:
1. Be clear on job expectations.
Recently, Gallup shared an alarming statistic: more than 7 out of 10 young remote or hybrid employees are unclear about what exactly is expected from them. The pandemic accelerated job creep, as being in firefighting mode inevitably added extra tasks to everyone’s workload. Now, however, these additional tasks exist in an ambiguous space: are employees expected to continue doing them? If so, will there be changes in designation or compensation?
Instead of indefinitely relying on hustle culture to meet key objectives, leaders must address these questions and create clarity around primary job duties. As the HBR piece explains:
Now is likely a good moment for managers to recalibrate employees’ core job responsibilities to more accurately reflect what work is actually necessary, and what should really qualify as extra. Managers can then focus on motivating workers to perform their most essential job tasks at a high level while giving them space to take care of themselves outside of work.
2. Create an enabling environment.
Managerial ability is crucially linked to quiet quitting, as shown in a recent study by Zenger Folkman. Managers who were best able to “balance getting results with a concern for others’ needs” had only 3% of their direct reports as quiet quitters and 62% as willing to put in extra effort. By contrast, the least-effective managers had 14% of team members as quiet quitters and only 20% willing to go the extra mile.
For those of you who are facing quiet quitting challenges in your team, think hard about whether this is due to your team member’s attitudes or your leadership style? Are you prioritising adequately and communicating expectations clearly? Are you building an environment of trust, supporting your team members and making your team members feel valued?
3. Measure outcomes, not hours.
There is a tendency is some work cultures to place excessive focus on how much time employees put in at work. Commitment is measured by how much earlier they are willing to come into the office, and how late they stay. This can create unhealthy work patterns that affect wellbeing and take a toll on the personal lives of employees – both key factors driving quiet quitting.
Let us shift the spotlight to outcomes instead of hours. Rather than measuring “chair time”, managers should assess team members’ productivity by how well they are able to meet clearly-set job expectations. By allowing results to speak for themselves, we can enable each individual to achieve their goals in the way best suited to them.
4. Invite employees to “craft” citizenship behaviours.
Instead of expecting employees to take on ad-hoc extra tasks, consider creating space for them to choose their own style of going above and beyond. Some team members enjoy high-visibility projects, others thrive in community-oriented settings where they can help people, while yet others find joy in attending to the fine details behind the scenes.
When additional activities are aligned with personal values and motivations, they can be deeply satisfying and energising – rather than feeling like a burden. Managers can work with team members to craft their own unique form of citizenship, and encourage them to take on these tasks when they have the bandwidth.
5. Nurture a purposeful workplace culture.
Studies have shown that a majority of younger employees crave purpose and meaning at work. Unfortunately, most fail to find it, making it all the more tempting to adopt a “coast from 9-to-5” mindset. Leaders who make a concerted effort to develop a purpose-driven culture are likely to see a long-term decline in quiet quitting.
Whether it is exaggerated by social media, or perhaps an old trend in a new bottle, the phenomenon of quiet quitting can be damaging. Leaders who act now to address organisational dysfunction and cultivate a healthier workplace dynamic will surely reap benefits such as higher psychological investment and engagement levels among employees.
A final note: if you are an employee who is being a quiet quitter, remember that we learn, develop and grow by stretching ourselves. You owe it to yourself to be in an organisation that values you and where you find joy and meaning at work. If you are not finding a supportive environment where you work, speak up and try to see if you can make some change happen. Else, look for another place that is more aligned with your needs and expectations.