Quiet quitting? Maybe its not about workers. Maybe its about workplaces.
The concept of quiet quitting is something managers ought to be prepared for, and it is most certainly not anything new. You can go back hundreds, if not thousands of years to find statements describing how each generation was lazier and more self absorbed than the last. The BBC does a great job of summarizing two thousand years of inter-generational complaints here. So don’t kid yourselves, the Quiet Quitting trend is just the TikTok version of a workplace phenomenon that is as old as work itself (sorry Gen Z, you didn’t invent wanting to clock out at 5pm).
Now, I think we need to make a distinction about the “Quiet Quitters” out there. Some people out there are boasting about doing the absolute bare minimum volume of work to stay employed, and others are celebrating shutting off their phones and logging out of their email at the end of the workday. For the former, you definitely need to ask yourself whether someone on your team is looking at the line of where they get fired and taking their performance one small notch up from there. Is that really an individual you want to keep on the team?
For the latter, we need to recognize that most workers aren’t inherently lazy, or they don’t want to be anyways. If you or someone in your organization hired them, they probably hired them for a reason. So as managers, we have to ask ourselves, why aren’t they motivated to go above and beyond?
Here are a couple of my thoughts on why people are “Quiet Quitting”, and what we should be doing about it.
When I began my career and was a fresh new grad in the Business Development group of a large multinational infrastructure firm, I had a senior VP named Rick. Rick led our organization through an era of unprecedented growth. Under his oversight the company developed assets of a size and scope that would never get regulatory approval today (that’s a whole other story). He was personable, charismatic, and at the sunset of his career. He had climbed the ladder, solidified his legacy, and didn’t have anything left to prove.
Rick always knew who was working on what, and diligently concerned himself with personally getting to know each of his fifty some odd reports. That included the newest grad on the team—me. Every day, Rick would walk around the floor at 5:30pm in search of whichever of his managers, advisors, or new grads were still around putting in the overtime. If you were still around after hours, he’d find you. But what comes next is the shock.
If you were still around after hours Rick would ask you what you were working on and why you were still at work. Rick made it clear that he wasn’t paying us to be around at 5:30pm. In his view, anyone regularly working after hours was either not using the 40 hours per week that they were being compensated for effectively, or that they were being tasked with too much work and weren’t asking for enough resources. Working late on a recurring basis wasn’t a badge of honour, it was a sign that you needed some coaching and development.
At that early stage in my career, those were formative words and I never forgot his approach towards work-life balance. He respected us enough to recognize that family, friends, and self-care ought to be our priorities.
Rick retired just a couple of years after I joined the organization and he was fondly remembered by the individuals who worked for him. Reflecting back on the career that I left seven years ago, if I had had more leaders like Rick, I would have probably never left that organization and I think I would have become a better leader at an earlier point in my life.
Employees setting boundaries is something to be respected and acknowledged. Now I know that there are workplace cultures, demographics, and individuals that long hours resonate with and that’s fine. But there’s a time and a place for it, and the vast majority of employees aren’t looking to work 60 hours per week just to get paid for 40 of them.
But there’s actually a productivity argument to be made for employees shutting work off at the end of their working day. In his book “Deep Work”, renowned author and computer science professor at Georgetown University, Cal Newport advocates for full disconnectivity and deliberate rest (Newport, 2016).
If we define “work” as the entire process of productivity and creativity, not just as the thing most of us are supposed to be doing from 9 to 5, rest is as integral a part of work as the obvious busywork we are all performing daily.
When we rest, our brain is still at work. In fact, the resting brain is almost as active as a highly focused brain, consolidating memories and quietly searching for solutions to problems we encountered. But if it is occupied with distractions, these processes are hindered.
Effective rest is a skill that can be honed. Deliberate rest is very different from just zoning out in front of the TV, scrolling down our Facebook feed, mindlessly swiping on Tinder, or clicking from cat video to cat video on YouTube. Almost like breathing, rest is something that everyone is doing, but that if mastered and perfected can become a transformative tool.
During rest, our brain switches to the highly active Default Mode Network (DMN). Studies have found that DMN activity is highly correlated with intelligence, empathy, emotional judgement, and even overall sanity and mental health.
This implies that rest is critical to health, development, and yes, productivity (Frenzel, 2018). So think twice about celebrating you or your employees spending the better part of their waking hours connected to their work devices.
Is there really a compelling reason why your employees ought to be working extra hours? Is it just about optics and their personal brand? Or is there a clear finish line and a deliberate goal that they are motivated to work towards?
If its just about optics, or created a polished hard-working image for themselves, ask yourself how far that’s gotten them. If you have ten people on your team and only one of them can have your job, given enough time, some of your team members are going to figure out that the likelihood of their ambiguous professional brand building campaign will only get them so far, and that additional effort does not guarantee a promotion.
In short, if an employee puts in the effort, they expect a certain result. If they do not get that result, they will not be motivated to make the effort again and so will not be satisfied with the outcome.
So, consider this. If those ten employees are being compensated at roughly the same rate, and opportunity for advancement or recognition is predicated on “going the extra mile”, then you could be creating an environment where employees do start “quiet quitting”. This is because they have realized that in a competitive setting, their reward depends on outworking nine other people. And doing so means compromising other values such as rest, time with loved ones, fitness, romance, adventure, and the list goes on. In a race of who can work the longest and hardest, some workers will realize that they don’t want to win just to get a promotion that puts them on another hamster wheel.
Does that mean that you cannot motivate your employees? Absolutely not. Rewards and recognition should be based on what they value. Understanding your employee’s intrinsic motivators is critical to motivation. Money is a powerful motivator but it is an extrinsic value, and when compensation is a certainty as it is in almost every salaried job, you have to look to other, more powerful intrinsic motivators to create success.
The role of values in workplace engagement cannot be understated. Misalignment in worker and organizational values very easily leads to decreased worker engagement and motivation. For instance, if your organization places a high value on geographic mobility for career advancement, and a worker is intent on maintaining their current lifestyle and living situation, it is unlikely that they will be motivated to “go above and beyond” once they recognize that their career growth is limited in your organization. Likewise, if a worker places a high value on prestige in their role, title, or place of work, and your company is a little known “mom and pop” firm, their motivation may likewise wane.
Pertinent to the current discussion, some latent workplace cultures view propensity to perform beyond their role requirements or outside of working hours as synonymous with higher performance. In those workplaces, burning the midnight oil would be a characteristic of high value employees. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but managers should acknowledge that if a worker isn’t interested in working overtime week in and week out, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are lazy, but that there could be a mismatch between their values and the values of your organization.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour confirms this. It yielded two findings relevant to the trend of “Quiet Quitting”. First, that intrinsic career values are an important personal resource when young people enter the work force. Second, that that intrinsic career values contributed to young people’s work engagement above the effect of other variables, such as person–organization fit, life situation and financial situation (Sortheix, Dietrich, Chow, & Salmela-Aro, 2013).
Does a mismatch between your organizational values and the values of your quietly quitting employee mean that your employee is doomed for failure in your organization? Not necessarily. Depending on how your workers prioritize intrinsic values such as autonomy, relationships, altruism, social justice, and others there may be latitude for you to appeal to those values within your organization, but this won’t always be the case.
Understanding the goals and values of individuals on your team is key to success. It will help you to understand where your employee wants to be, and how you can set them up for success in or out of your organization.
If your success as a manager is dependent on your workforce working overtime, then maybe you need to take a page out of Rick’s book. Do you as a manager need to ask for more resources? Or do you need to revisit what tasks and deliverables for your team are business critical?
Like I said off the top, Quiet Quitting isn’t really anything new. If it’s a phenomena you suspect you’re facing in your workplace, the questions you should be asking of your employees are just as important as the questions you should be asking about your organizational culture, and maybe even your own leadership. But I can assure you, its not because TikTok has made Gen Z lazy to their core.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. And one generation thinking the next is less productive than the last is a thought as old as work itself. But don’t take my word for it…
“Whither are the manly vigour and athletic appearance of our forefathers flown? Can these be their legitimate heirs? Surely, no; a race of effeminate, self-admiring, emaciated fribbles can never have descended in a direct line from the heroes of Potiers and Agincourt…”
Letter in Town and Country magazine republished in Paris Fashion: A Cultural History, 1771