Quiet Quitting: The Sign Of A Broken Relationship

How can we prevent the phenomenon to spread wider?

Quiet Quitting: The Sign Of A Broken Relationship
Photo by Niklas Hamann / Unsplash

Since a TikTok video went viral, there's an ongoing discussion around the phenomenon of quiet quitting. The simple definition of quiet quitting: Employees only do the bare minimum of their job description—not more to excel, not too less to give the company a reason to let them go.

Some voices, however, object to the term 'quiet quitting'. For example, Ed Zitron told NPR: "The term is so offensive because it suggests that people that do their work have somehow quit their job, framing workers as some sort of villain in an equation where they're doing exactly what they were told."

In many ways, quiet quitting can be seen as a counter-movement to the notion that work dominates more and more of our lives.

Quiet Quitting Is A Warning Sign

Quiet quitting is something like the little sister of the Great Resignation, but the reasons behind the behaviour might be similar. Michelle Hay, GPO of Sedgwick, told the Washington Post: "It speaks to the tired and frustrated feeling that many are experiencing on the tail end of the pandemic. People are reassessing their priorities, and social disconnection can be part of this shift."

The quick succession of the Great Resignation and quiet quitting certainly points towards a significant shift in the perception of work—in the Western hemisphere, at least. In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the implementation of remote work, potentially leading to more flexibility between work and private life.

However, simultaneously, the pivot to a fully or partially remote company culture is still an ongoing transformation accompanied by trial and error and a great deal of uncertainty. A recent study found that remote workers still waste up to 67 minutes daily being digitally present.

The reason for an employee to engage in quiet quitting might be circumstantial and highly individual. At the same time, the broad reception of the subject also points toward systemic challenges for companies. It's a warning sign.

The Impact Is Yet Unknown

On the other side of the debate stand those concerned about companies' successes and general economic productivity. USA Today paints an almost doomsday-like scenario, suggesting that quiet quitting is already impacting the US economy and also connecting it to inflation. However, the possible impact of quiet quitting cannot yet be fully perceived.

Others see quiet quitting just as yet another proof that younger generations simply lack the resilience to persist in the harsh economic environment. They blame the weak employees who can't endure hard times.

Nuanced opinions are unfortunately rarer, with dogmatism rampant on both sides. Nevertheless, some comments try to find a middle ground. "What I object to is the 'quiet' nature of the movement, when what we need right now is an assertive and noisy discussion of the appropriate boundaries between our home and working lives," writes Jessica Irvin in the Sidney Morning Herald.

Nilufer Ahmed also suggests that quiet quitting "can also help to separate your self-worth from work" and mitigate the risk of mental health issues which also benefits the employers.

Indeed, quiet quitting shows two significant short-comings by both companies and employees:

  1. Companies still don't know how to engage and retain their employees sustainably.
  2. Employees demonstrate short-term and tactical thinking about work.

Companies Need To Learn

While the Great Resignation is still in full swing, quiet quitting is but an additional challenge for a company's leadership. As quiet quitting is also prevalent amongst highly skilled employees, employers need to expand their toolkit for motivating their staff and investing in culture. One crucial step is acknowledging that workers are human beings with many aspects that might impact their performance. That means starting a dialogue and actively managing expectations is critical for the transformation.

A deeper insight into the current state of hiring and possible strategies provides in this extensive report by McKinsey. Their conclusion is quite clear:

"Our research identified distinct pools of workers with varied workplace priorities. Their differences show that employers have to take a multifaceted approach to attract and retain talent."

While most employees hope to find a higher-paying job, according to a broad survey by PwC, many participants mention other factors:

  • Wanting a fulfilling job (69%)
  • Wanting to truly be themselves at work (66%)
  • being able to choose where they work (47%)

Furthermore, I've already described the three key drivers of what motivates us as proposed by Daniel Pink:

  • Autonomy
    Our desire to be self-directed. It increases engagement over compliance.
  • Mastery
    The urge to get better skilled.
  • Purpose
    The desire to do something that has meaning and is important.

Jobs requiring only a tiny amount of cognitive skill and creativity are not susceptible to traditional carrots and sticks methods; the opposite is true: Performance gets worse.

Employees Need To Become Strategic

On the other side of the aisle are the quiet quitters who are as stubborn as old-fashioned managers.

Yes, the intention behind quiet quitting is definitely a legitimate one: Seeking a fairer balance between work and private life is necessary, and the ever-increasing creep of work into the personal space through digital technologies is concerning.

Of course, bending over backwards isn't a great idea, and if you find yourself in a toxic environment, actually quitting your job is probably a better way.

However, as Jessica Irvin states, the quiet nature of this trend isn't improving the situation either. Instead of starting an open dialogue inside the company, they exclude themselves as an active part of the solution and create the expectation that it's only the employer's responsibility.

Quiet quitting might also hurt a person's career: Someone who only delivers the minimum is less likely to get promoted, receive a raise, be part of challenging new projects, or get a favourable recommendation when leaving the company on good terms. If we think about romantic relationships: Would you invest time and energy in a partner that seems disengaged? Probably not for long.

It is, therefore, relatively short-term and tactical thinking, improving the individual and immediate situation but not accounting for a long-term career strategy.

Relationships need two to work

The employer-employee relationship is like any other: It's a two-way stream of expectation management that requires an honest and ongoing discussion.

Sometimes, the company needs overtime and additional effort to finish a big project or meet customers' demands. Other times, an employee cannot handle an additional workload because of family matters or other personal issues. The key is communicating these contradicting needs and expectations early on and implementing clear rules and rewards based on meeting them.

Ultimately, both sides can benefit heavily from increased engagement and communication: The company strengthens its resilience while employees have opportunities for personal growth, new challenges, career planning, and work-life balance.