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The Truth About Quiet Quitting



Employer Branding, Talent Attraction, Brand Authenticity

The phrase ‘Quiet Quitting’ has blown up in the last few weeks, but what do business leaders think about the term, what is the reality behind it and what can employers do about it?..

Since we highlighted the sudden arrival of the phrase ‘Quiet Quitting’ last week, there has been much discussion about its exact meaning and significance for employers and the workplace.

Is it a conscious disengagement from work, reflecting serious employee dissatisfacton? Employees taking advantage of remote working or have employers taken their eye off the ball with regards to boundaries and welfare?

Having spoken to a number of bosses, execs and talent leaders, it seems that there may be more sympathy out there for the so-called quiet quitters than was initially apparent.

Even the phrase itself, seems to trigger a reaction.

Victoria Pelletier, Managing Director, Global CEO Transformation at Accenture: says: “Personally, I hate the phrase as it generally means employees who are focused on working for a company and in a role that offers a better balance in the work that they perform and where, for how long, and to whom they perform this work.

“It's very different than "strategic incompetence", which is where employees choose to perform a task/activity poorly to get out of having to be assigned it in future. Also, this doesn't necessarily signal a resignation (although it can be a precursor), but employees being more confident in delivering against what they are paid for in a reasonable amount of time and in a great culture and environment that is much more human-centric.”

Why employees disengage

Clear communications from employers about what is expected in the role and what it takes to succeed (the essence of any good employer brand) is the key, says Art Shaikh, Founder & CEO of media tech company, CircleIt:Often there is a lack of communication from the top which can cause employees to feel misguided. One thing that I have been adamant about is establishing expectations up front with my team, which is why I conduct all initial interviews myself. Another factor that plays into this is the rise of remote work. Remote work is fine, but it can lead to a lack of collaboration which can lead to a feeling of disconnectedness among team members.

“As a tech startup, we need the speed that comes along with in-person collaboration, so we have a hybrid model, which is designed to help team members achieve work-life balance while still maintaining productivity and a high pace of innovation."

Jess Von Bank, Head of Brand Strategy & Vendor Solutions at Luminate, says that in jumping to conclusions about what is happening in the workplace and its effect on productivity, employers may be missing a huge opportunity.

She comments: People are just more emboldened to call their own shots when it comes to work. If they’re calling the shots while staying in their jobs, is that quiet quitting, or is that boundary setting? Is there a level of disengagement that could be argued healthy if it does no harm to the business?

“Americans are guiltier than anyone of hustle culture. Questioning hustle culture in your own organization, having a self-identity that is not your job, establishing boundaries, and prioritizing self-care and mental health could be misconstrued as ‘quiet quitting’ when they might, in fact, be markers of a healthier relationship to work than we’re accustomed to seeing in practice. Making yourself unavailable during PTO or outside of synchronous working hours is not disengaging; it could actually support making yourself more productive when working.

“There’s a decent chance we’re jumping on a buzzword bandwagon and missing the bigger point and opportunity. People are calling the shots, and they’re calling them differently. Work matters but for different reasons. Joy, inspiration, fulfillment, and human connection finally take a front seat in the NOW of Work. People want to be seen, not managed. They want to deliver value, not performance. They want to be part of something special, not a system. If those are missing, you’re leaving a whole lot of human possibility on the table. Call it quiet quitting, or call it the opportunity cost of failing to recognize the evolution of work and talent.”

She might be on to something. According to Octanner, 79% of employees say they would quit the quiet quitting if given more recognition in the workplace.

Gen Z and Quiet Quitting

Generational factors are also at play. Gen Z (that’s this guy), those now aged up to 25, are among the loudest proponents of quiet quitting. If that’s not too much of an oxymoron.

John Newcome, Vice President and Consultant, Kelly Benefits Strategies (KBS), one of the largest employee benefits providers in the US, says: “Gen Z’s unique needs mean the expansion of non-healthcare offerings. Younger employees are looking ahead to the future. They will choose companies that offer paid maternity leave, help with child and elder support, and financial management services.
“By 2025, Generation Z will represent more than a quarter of the U.S workforce. It’s critical for businesses to think beyond traditional benefits to recruit and retain the workforce’s newest generation.”

While previous generations have been used to the traditional, long hours of working with little payoff, Gen Z has a different idea of the concept of work and career. It's not that they don't want to hustle and put in work, but if they're going to do so, it needs to benefit both parties.

Is Quiet Quitting anything new?

Bill Catlette, Partner at leadership consultancy, Contented Cow Partners, says none of this is new, in fact, he points to studies conducted more than 100 years ago, that were wrestling with the same problem:  In a 1920 series of behavioral experiments conducted at the Hawthorn Works of the Western Electric Company, Australian psychologist, Elton Mayo revealed that human beings are uniquely able and inclined to regulate their level of involvement in work and other activities, AND that such modulation is based more on relational than sanction or economic factors, good leadership being one of them. 

“Mayo’s discovery led to the coining of the term, “Discretionary Effort” by social scientist, Daniel Yankelovich. Subsequent study of the impact of discretionary effort revealed the extent to which such effort, the products of good leadership, and what’s now known as “employee engagement” has an impact on a business’s bottom line (Contented Cows Give Better Milk)

“The book’s central premise, borne out by the research: Motivated people move faster, creating more and better stuff/experiences for customers, and the delight of shareholders. So, in a nutshell, as individuals, we’ve long been able to regulate the levels of devotion and effort directed to our work.”

Catlette believes the pandemic created a shift in the balance of power that saw workers either leave - as seen in the Great Resignation - or look to exercise that new leverage in other ways.

“Have employers induced some of this activity? Yes… some, but not all. First, the ‘water over the dam’. Employers have mainly held a tight rein on pay and benefit increases over the last two decades because, well, they could. So there was (and is) considerable pent-up demand for wage improvements, especially in a period of high inflation. When the C-suite is enjoying a 10x advantage in wage appreciation over people five levels down the line, it won’t be a secret forever.

“Second, and back to Mayo’s findings, as illustrated in Contented Cows - the quality of leadership plays a key role in the individual moment-to-moment decision people make about how much discretionary effort to commit in the workspace. 

“As average job duration has declined from 20-plus years to something less than four years, corporations have taken a giant step back from the amount of leadership development provided to their management teams. The operative logic seems to be, “Why develop them for the future, when they’ll just take their new skills somewhere else?” Yeah, but what if they stay? We’re strongly advocating that clients get thoughtful and serious about both leadership selection and development. Those who decline that path should probably root for a recession to take some wind out of the sails of their workforce.”

How to manage quiet quitters

Perhaps it is too much to expect employees to be engaged at the same level, even when they love their job, but employers can do more to gauge those levels and help when support is needed.

Rachel Kanarowski, Founder & Principal Consultant at Year of Living Better, says: “Even the best employers can't keep every employee engaged. At the end of the day it's up to individuals to take choose what's right for their well-being. But systems impact individuals so every employer should look for simple ways to get a human pulse on their workforce, starting at the manager level. It shouldn't be complicated or require an expensive new tech solution; using the "stay interview" method is one proven way for managers to check in regularly with their team.”

Ultimately, it seems that if it’s not a complete culture shift in attitudes to work (which it may well be in the case of Gen Z),  something that may take a while longer for the results to come in on, then it is possible that a recalibration of the employee value exchange (that ‘give and get’) can reset the approach of so-called quiet quitters, re-align their personal purpose and ambitions with the company’s to create a workforce of 'satisfied stayers'; 'stoic stalwarts', 'gratified grafters'.

Or just go with 'happy employees'.


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