“Quiet quitting,” one of the most talked about topics in management circles, is not a new phenomenon. The term, credited to Mark Boldger, an economist at Texas A&M, was used as early as 2009; and it’s been used millions of times over the past several months to lament a slump in ambition and professional drive.
The problem is that far too frequently, the conversation focuses upon employees and their seeming lack of motivation or willingness to give their all for the organization, rather than upon managers and organizations and how they may be inspiring people to disconnect and withdraw their discretionary effort.
That’s why it’s time to stop demonizing employees and instead focus our efforts on decoding what’s behind the phenomenon, debunking the tropes and discovering ways to optimize the engagement of each employee. It all starts with managers asking four key questions.
Question 1: Do we know what’s motivating the shift in the mindset and/or behavior of the employee?
Hypotheses abound – pointing to everything from generational differences to the talent marketplace to the rise of the gig economy. But this kind of lazy thinking and desire to generalize may be the crux of the problem. Employees don’t fall into some broad monolithic demographic category. They’re individuals who must be treated as populations of one. Managers who understand this will work person-by-person to understand the broad range of issues undermining optimal engagement at work.
My field research finds that motivation typically falls into one of two categories:
- Preservation: People are exhausted – physically, emotionally and spiritually. Burnout is at an all-time high. Sheer survival demands safeguarding vital resources and rebuilding depleted energy reserves. Pulling back at work and simply meeting (versus blowing past) expectations is a valid response.
- Protest: Other employees are stepping back in protest of an already deteriorating employment contract that has only frayed further throughout the pandemic. Many workers literally put their lives on the line to support their organizations. And what do they perceive to be getting in return? Stagnant wages that aren’t keeping pace with inflation while executives experience exponential compensation growth. Increasing demands are met with a lack of loyalty and even lay-off. Moderating one’s efforts is an understandable response to these conditions.
Managers who take the time to treat people as unique individuals and explore their authentic motivations will not only build understanding – but also rapport, respect and trust. They’ll also be poised to ask a follow-up question: What will it take to motivate greater engagement? Maybe it’s more flexibility to address issues outside of the workplace. Or a greater sense of meaning and purpose. Or variety. Maybe a different role altogether. Considering the whole human being is the first step toward identifying ways to elevate engagement and commitment.
Question 2: Has the organization or team experienced a pattern of escalating expectations and/or volume of work?
Most organizations have raised “doing more with less” to an artform. Open headcount. Greater complexity. Increased volume. Reduced budgets. These are common features of today’s business landscape. Add to this the additional emotional labor required to deal with increasingly skeptical customers who face frustrations caused by supply chain-generated delays, rising pricing and other extraordinary factors. It’s exhausting for the average employee as they push their limits and absorb unprecedented levels of psychic stress.
If the answer to question #2 is “yes.” then quiet quitters are a gift and an opportunity to revisit the environment, resources and workloads to humanize the workplace and create an environment where people have some discretionary effort to give.
Question 3: Does each employee have clear, fair, and verifiable goals and objectives?
Expectations define what acceptable performance looks like. Full stop. It is fundamentally unfair for a manager to set that bar and then hold employees to a different/higher/invisible standard.
Over the past couple of years, the chaos of COVID-19 teamed with the transition to remote and hybrid work has resulted in a breakdown of the rigor around goal setting for many. Now is the time to rebuild these practices, because they’re needed more than ever. Leaders who inspire next-level effort co-create meaningful goals that employees are excited about – goals that are linked to the bigger picture, fair, objective, verifiable and within the control of the employee to accomplish.
Question 4: Is the organization investing in development?
Development is a key driver of employee engagement. Not surprisingly, when people feel that their careers are being developed, they’re more satisfied and invested in their work. The Great Resignation certainly spotlighted how far people would go (literally) for development. And current statistics only serve to continue to validate this trend. (According to McKinsey’s Bonnie Dowling, 40% of workers globally are considering leaving their job within 3-6 months as reported by CNBC.)
Investing in development offers those who want to contribute more the basis for being able to do so. Making workshops, webinars and on-demand resources available to employees sends a clear signal of value. And when tasks are connected to organic opportunities for growth, work immediately becomes more meaningful, and people are more inspired to expend discretionary effort.
“Quiet quitting” is less about the workforce and more about the systems within which it operates. Organizations must re-think the employee experience and their role in the current engagement crisis. And managers must ask themselves some fundamental questions to diagnose the cause and take steps to address it. That’s how we’ll turn “quiet quitting” into noisy new contributions.
Julie Winkle Giulioni focuses on growth and development in the workplace, helping leaders and organizations optimize the potential of their people. She co-authored “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want.”
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