By Pete Hinojosa
The latest buzzword in the business world is “quiet quitting”—which, contrary to what its name seems to imply, isn’t actually about leaving a job. An outgrowth of the Great Resignation, quiet quitting is a trend (one that’s getting a lot of attention on social media) in which working professionals dramatically reduce their workplace engagement rather than leaves their jobs outright.
Quiet quitters tend to embrace one of three attitudes:
- “I’m no longer going to stress out over my job and getting everything done perfectly, but I will still be productive and produce quality work.”
- “I’m only going to do what’s asked of me and nothing more. I’ll just coast along and won’t go above and beyond the minimum without additional pay.”
- “I’ve mentally checked out of work and plan to get by doing the bare minimum until I attract negative attention. I’m sheltering in my current job and will flee the minute a better opportunity becomes available.”
An employee who is quiet quitting hasn’t given their two weeks’ notice (yet!), but they’ve completely rethought their approach to work. Instead of giving their best, they choose to do the bare minimum.
Why does quiet quitting matter?
If the employee is still meeting minimum requirements and finishing work, what’s the big deal? Compare this to a restaurant server who doesn’t check in with customers and refill their water glasses but still takes their orders correctly and delivers their food. The concern with quiet quitters (and absentee waitstaff) is that their behavior indicates some level of disengagement and can be a form of protest against something they are unhappy about in their current job. When low employee engagement or even anger are the origins of quiet quitting, this phenomenon may indicate deeper problems within a workplace, such as distant leadership or an undesirable culture.
And it’s not all positive for employees, either. Quiet quitting has the potential to impair employees’ relationships with their colleagues and managers and can lead employees to overlook or retreat from opportunities for sought-after work projects or even career advancement.
Why are employees quiet? (And when should companies worry about it?)
The “quiet” in “quiet quitting” signifies that employees are stopping short of taking a big, noticeable step such as quitting their jobs. Quiet quitters are taking a less extreme approach: instead, they lie low, withdraw from social interactions in the workplace, and reduce their communication.
To be clear, a quiet demeanor is not an automatic red flag; there are many possible reasons why an employee is quiet. They might be an introvert, for example, or have a subdued personality. It is also possible that they are focused and keeping their head down while working, reflecting, and planning (which can be a great thing from the company’s perspective!).
But when employees suddenly turn quiet because they feel as though they have nothing of value to say, they have nothing meaningful to do, or no one listens to them anyway, that’s when companies should be concerned. In those cases, being quiet could be related to an employee feeling directionless, unmotivated, unfulfilled, misunderstood, or underappreciated. These kinds of feelings can cause someone to feel like giving up, withdraw, and eventually leave.
Who is quiet quitting?
Employee engagement has been falling throughout the country over the past few years, “dropping from 36 percent engaged employees in 2020 to 34 percent in 2021” and down to 32 percent in the first months of 2022.1 If engagement is in a slump across the board, why has quiet quitting become a social media phenomenon primarily with younger workers? Why are younger Millennials and Generation Z workers the age groups with the lowest levels of engagement in the workforce?
Each generation has its own approaches to and expectations of work, shaped by the particular context of its time. Baby Boomers, for example, have long been recognized for their strong work ethic and would do anything necessary to show merit and climb the corporate ladder. Older Millennials place a high value on work–life balance.
Today, younger Millennials and Generation Z workers prioritize life–work balance—a subtle shift that reflects how they put their personal lives before their work lives. Their overall attitude is one of “I have a life and I have to work. But my work is just a part of my life—it’s not my entire life.” When engagement is low as a result of feeling misunderstood, underappreciated, and undervalued, this modern attitude toward work can easily shift into a more negative mindset: “They don’t care about me, so I don’t care about the company. I’m not doing anything extra to help them.” Furthermore, these younger generations live in a postdigital world in which they’re accustomed to using technologies that, while making work more efficient and enabling remote work, have also created more barriers to face-to-face human interaction and make it harder for them to connect with others.
What does quiet quitting look like?
Quiet quitters usually progress through three stages:
- Tolerance: “This behavior/situation/person drives me crazy, but I just want to get back to my job. I don’t like it, but I’ll put up with it.”
- Avoidance: “I’ll do whatever I can to avoid dealing with this behavior/situation/person. I’m looking for opportunities to get away or distance myself.”
- Elimination: “I’ve had enough and I can’t take any more of this behavior/situation/person. I have to find a better place to work.”
Leaders should be aware of the varying points within the tolerance and avoidance stages of quiet quitting and understand that once an employee has fully entered the elimination stage, they are no longer quietly quitting but actively looking for a new job and will completely quit in the near future.
In addition to the withdrawal mentioned above, leaders should also look out for any sudden changes in behavior that are the opposite of what an employee would usually exhibit. (For example, a normally engaged employee suddenly becoming quiet or a normally quiet employee suddenly becoming pretty outspoken and assertive would both warrant close attention.) Other employee behaviors and attitudes that can signal a problem include disillusionment, frustration, signs of being overwhelmed, confusion (due to lack of direction), boredom, and lethargy.
It’s important to pay attention to the small things—the potential warning signs that someone is looking to quit—before they become insurmountable problems. Of course, this task is more challenging when managing remote employees, because the more subtle clues are harder to spot when people don’t regularly interact with each other in person. But conscientiousness can mitigate some of those obstacles.
How to encourage reengagement
Keep leaders’ cups full
In pre-flight safety presentations, flight attendants remind passengers that if there’s a need to use oxygen masks, they should put on their own masks before helping others with theirs, because it is hard for someone to help another person if they themselves are struggling. Similarly, leaders need to take care of themselves first so they have enough energy to support their teams and keep them engaged. Some strategies for this include:
- practicing self-care,
- emphasizing the things that bring them passion in their work,
- partnering with other leaders to share knowledge and best practices, and
- prioritizing the things they enjoy outside of work that increase their energy and inspiration.
Leaders deal with a tremendous amount of stress but should make sure it does not interfere with the team’s success. Senior leaders should also remember to take care of their middle managers, too.
Bring energy to the team
Companies should heed the old adage “If the audience is dead, wake up the speaker”: if a team is disengaged, then its leader needs to meet the team’s needs. Starting from a place of servant leadership, a leader can help others reach their goals by fostering a culture based on
- love and belonging,
- safety and security,
- fun and learning,
- results and autonomy,
- recognition and worth, and
- growth and development.
All of these attributes are interconnected, and each one offers opportunities to meet team members’ needs and increase their engagement. Because certain areas will resonate with some individuals more than others, using personality assessments (such as DISC or Myers Briggs) can help leaders better tailor the work environment to each employee’s gifts or strengths.
Quiet quitting is a slippery slope when it’s related to disengagement or is revenge for perceived wrongdoings. As employees advance through the stages of tolerance, avoidance, and elimination, their lack of discretionary effort and their growing negativity can have real impacts on their companies and other team members. To reengage these employees, leaders must attend to their own passion and excitement for work; create a trusting, inspiring, and safe environment that offers plenty of opportunities for recognition, growth, and autonomy; and emphasize what is most important to the team based on members’ unique needs and personalities.
Pete Hinojosa is the director of thought leadership with Insperity, where he develops and delivers leadership training to all leaders and managers across the country. He can be reached at XYZ.