The phenomenon offers an important lesson about employee engagement.
There’s a new phrase traveling around the Internet — “quiet quitting” — which refers to the practice of employees consciously working no harder at their job than they need to.
The phrase has traveled across social media, where one TikTok user defines it as “doing the role you’re paid for and not going over and above. Its (sp) not voluntarily signing up to extra projects and contributing to hustle culture”:
@totalreward “Quiet Quitting” is being defined as doing the role you’re paid for and not going over and above. Its not voluntarily signing up to extra projects and contributing to hustle culture.I think this is obsurd, is it “quitting” or is it setting boundaries?Are we expected to constantly be in an accelerated state?what are you thoughts? #quietquitting ♬ original sound – Total Reward
The poster goes on to challenge the word itself, writing “Is it ‘quitting’ or is it setting boundaries? Are we expected to constantly be in an accelerated state?”
“The most interesting part about it is nothing’s changed,” another poster said in his TikTok video. “I still work just as hard. I still get just as much accomplished. I just don’t stress and internally rip myself to shreds.”
Jim Harter, chief scientist for Gallup’s workplace and well-being research, said workers’ descriptions of “quiet quitting” align with a large group of survey respondents that he classifies as “not engaged”—those who will show up to work and do the minimum required but not much else. More than half of workers surveyed by Gallup who were born after 1989—54%—fall into this category.
One factor Gallup uses to measure engagement is whether people feel their work has purpose. Younger employees report that they don’t feel that way, the data show. These are the people who are more likely to work passively and look out for themselves over their employers, Dr. Harter said.
Once the shock of the phrase subsides and you realize that the phenomenon doesn’t literally refer to resignation, there’s still the matter of disengaged employees to engage with. But before you begin the task of winning back attention spans, it’s worth taking stock of the situation to understand what the phenomenon can teach you about your workforce.
Here are a few things to consider.
- Is your leadership modeling remote/hybrid work boundaries?
Matt Spielman, career coach and author of the book “Inflection Points: How to Work and Live With Purpose,” told The New York that people are likely to scale back the scope of their work when they are at their wit’s end or on the precipice of burnout and explained why remote work amplifies these feelings.
“With remote work it is far easier to feel less involved, less part of a team, and it’s easier for managers to break up with employees and vice versa,” he said. “There are fewer boundaries of when work starts and when work stops.”
In the absence of boundaries clearly defined and communicated by management, employees will find ways to set their own — and considerate internal communication is often the first core competency to go. You can mitigate this by sharing guidelines and expectations for answering work email outside of office hours, encouraging leaders to schedule send messages and making a point of reminding all employees that your office is closed on weekends, holidays and other time off.
If the phenomenon seems to have spread across your workforce, partner with HR to consider a more drastic policy change, such as a shortened work week, volunteer days or other perks that can contribute to your company’s culture and ultimately drive more sense of belonging without creating more work for employees.
- Are your managers practicing active listening?
Spielman goes on to point out that quiet quitting, and the movement around it, are often framed as employees getting revenge on a company for working them too hard. “Quiet quitting seems very passive aggressive,” he told the NYT. “If somebody is burnt out, there should be a candid conversation about that, and it should be both ways. Just saying, ‘I am going to do the absolute minimum because I am entitled to it or I have issues’ — it doesn’t really help anybody.”
Buried in Spielman’s advice is the idea that it’s on the employee themselves to chat about their issues. In practice, it’s their manager who is charged with holding those candid conversations. In order for those conversations to yield any revelations or progress, managers must practice active listening every day through the common touchpoints including employee comms apps, meetings, email and more.
“You surely understand how to actively listen: don’t interrupt, suspend judgment, ask open questions, paraphrase content as an accuracy check, and reflect emotions to convey empathy,” wrote Rick Brandon, Ph.D in a recent Ragan piece. “But are you short-sighted about when and where you should be listening?”
Of course, this doesn’t work if managers are burnt out or quiet quitting themselves. Just as with boundary setting, this behavior should also be modeled and practice by the leaders who managers report to.
- Is the purpose of your work being communicated effectively?
Maria Kordowicz, an associate professor in organizational behavior at the University of Nottingham, told The Guardian that the rise of quiet quitting goes beyond mere job dissatisfaction to scratch something deeper.
“The search for meaning has become far more apparent,” she said. “There was a sense of our own mortality during the pandemic, something quite existential around people thinking ‘What should work mean for me? How can I do a role that’s more aligned to my values?’”
Kordowicz’s words are supported by “Purpose Under Pressure,” a recent study by Carol Cone, CEO of Carol Cone ON PURPOSE. In the study, 84% said they will only work at purpose-driven companies or brands. For context, 84% also said they feel more empowered than in the past to use their work as a force for good. Eighty-six percent also believe that it’s more important than ever for their work to have meaning.
“It’s what they stand for with their meaning, what they stand for with their bottom line, how do they treat me as an employee?” Cone told Ragan. “Do they listen to me? Do they engage me? Do they allow me to bring my whole self to my work, so if I really love to volunteer I can do that within my company?”