Article

NextGen Know-How: ‘Quiet Quitting’ Isn’t All That It Seems

employee closes laptop on desk as alarm clock reaches 5 PM
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CSP, CPCC Photo
Executive Coach/Consultant
Envision Excellence

10 minutes

There’s a lot to learn from this trend—and the lessons have a lot more to do with engaging leadership than lazy employees.

More than 20 years ago, I moved from my small hometown in upstate New York to Maryland. I was excited to start a new chapter in my life, and I was hired by a small technology company to be the office manager. During the interview process, the director of human resources had painted a great picture of my new role—I’d have my own office, learn new skills and be part of the management team. My first day on the job, the HR director pointed to the receptionist’s desk as we walked into the office and said that they didn’t have an office ready for me, so I would be sitting at reception until an office opened up. (It eventually did two months later, but it was a shared office with two other people.) She also casually mentioned that the president of the company didn’t like the title of “office manager,” so they had changed my title to “administrative assistant.” Not surprisingly, I wasn’t part of the management team conversations.

During the three months that I worked for this company, I dreaded going to the office. I wasn’t learning new skills; the job description that was shared in the interview had very little resemblance to the actual day-to-day work. I have always been a hard worker and dedicated employee, and I prided myself on going above and beyond in every job I had held. But this was different. I felt disengaged at work and unmotivated to do anything more than what was asked. I eagerly anticipated the clock turning to 5 p.m. each day so I could leave my miserable job and go home.

If this story took place in 2022, my lack of engagement might be called “quiet quitting.”

What Is Quiet Quitting, Really?

The phrase “quiet quitting” has been trending in leadership articles, blogs and even on TikTok over the past few months. Although the term is catchy, it’s just a new name for an old problem—lack of engagement. Or is it?

When I Googled “quiet quitting” to get an accurate definition for this article, I found several different perspectives on what the term means. Some articles describe quiet quitting as the behavior of employees who are only putting in enough effort to meet minimum job requirements (as compared to engaged employees who regularly put in extra effort on the job). Other articles suggest that quiet quitting is when employees reject the notion of the hustle culture that allows work to take over your life (think lack of boundaries or a culture that expects employees to be constantly connected to work).

There is a difference between being disengaged (mentally and emotionally not feeling connected to your job) and rejecting the notion that your job should take over your life and require you to be constantly connected.

To further illustrate the different perspectives about this topic, here are explanations from three recent articles circulating about quiet quitting:

From Planet Money (NPR), on Sept. 13, 2022:

“You're not outright quitting your job, but you're quitting the idea of going above and beyond," Khan says. "You're still performing your duties, but you're no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life. The reality is it's not—and your worth as a person is not defined by your labor.”

From The Wall Street Journal, on Aug. 22, 2022:

Josh Bittinger, a 32-year-old market research director at a management consulting company, said people who stumble on the phrase “quiet quitting” may assume it encourages people to be lazy, when it actually reminds them to not work to the point of burnout.

“I get my job done; my projects done. I’m performing well and I get good feedback,” he said. “And I’m able to still take time to just step away from everything.”

From Gallup, on Sept. 6, 2022:

"Quiet quitters" make up at least 50% of the U.S. workforce—probably more, Gallup finds. The trend toward quiet quitting—the idea spreading virally on social media that millions of people are not going above and beyond at work and just meeting their job description—could get worse. This is a problem because most jobs today require some level of extra effort to collaborate with coworkers and meet customer needs.”

I personally think the term quiet quitting is not reflective of the concept that is most often being described. In most descriptions, quiet quitting is not necessarily disengaging from your job; it’s creating boundaries around how much you want your work to be part of your life. Quiet quitters could be engaged for the hours they are at work but don’t care to extend that engagement outside of normal working hours.

In some coverage of the topic, quiet quitting is equated to being completely disengaged on the job. In others, it’s described as not going above and beyond the job requirements. In my opinion, those can be two different things. Gallup’s research has shown that engaged employees typically put in extra effort on the job and that disengaged workers tend to do just enough to get by. But I believe there is more nuance to be explored here—does extra effort have to equate to more hours? In the various articles I read, many employees expressed quiet quitting as keeping a healthy approach to work-life balance. In my opening story, I would describe myself as disengaged in my work—I was unhappy and didn’t feel a connection to the job or company, and the culture did not inspire me to put in my full potential. I was meeting the job requirements but miserable in the process, whereas some employees who are quiet quitting may enjoy their work, get the job done and then unplug.

There Are Lessons to Be Learned About Workplace Practices

Now, perhaps in leadership role, it wouldn’t be acceptable to leave the office every day at 5 and call it a day. But in many individual contributor or supporting roles, extra hours don’t necessarily lead to better results. The quiet quitting trend has ignited a conversation around workplace practices and expectations that can be very helpful for leaders, if we are willing to listen.

Leaders should consider the following:

  1. Work is constantly evolving. Employee expectations regarding the workplace were evolving for years before the pandemic, and the pandemic certainly accelerated a shift in perspective about how we work. Employees have more choices than ever before, and most aren’t willing to settle for a job where succeeding at work comes at the expense of their personal life. During the pandemic, employees experienced a different way of work, and many of them benefited from not having to commute to an office. Many organizations that were virtual couldn’t measure work performance by the traditional approach of time spent in the office. Forward-thinking organizations realized that measuring results was more valuable. Family dynamics (an increase in both partners working in many households), our society and our culture continue to evolve over time. Through this evolution and increased choice, people have started to reflect on what they want at work. Many individuals have chosen to move to companies that reflect their values of meaningful work, a supportive culture and healthy boundaries. Forty years ago, when traditional gender roles were more prominent, many workers were willing to work 12 hours a day to earn a living while their partner stayed home and managed the house and children. That dynamic has shifted, and so has the mindset about the traditional work environment. Workplace expectations will continue to evolve, and to be effective, leaders and organizations need to evolve too.
  2. The traditional management style is outdated. A traditional management approach of command-and-control is not effective in today’s modern workplace. As work has evolved, so have employees’ expectations of leaders, yet most have not upgraded their leadership skills to reflect the changing needs of today’s workforce. As different generations entered the workplace, they brought a different perspective on how they view work. Many employees are craving a more modern approach to work that includes leaders seeing them as human beings who want to use their talents and skills and grow and develop to their potential. They want supportive work environments and leaders who invest time and energy in their development and success. To continue to compete for exceptional talent, credit unions need to assess their managers and provide them with the training and coaching to elevate their leadership.
  3. Well-being is more important than ever before. As I read through many articles about quiet quitting, a theme that stood out was that employees need a sense of well-being in their lives. Employees are looking for a healthier workload and are pushing back on the hustle culture of constantly being connected. Many employees expressed that they enjoy their jobs but they also care about rest and rejuvenation; instilling boundaries is a healthy way to maintain their engagement at work while also enjoying their lives. As leaders, we need to be mindful that the work environment we create can either contribute positively or negatively to well-being. Perhaps encouraging better boundaries can actually increase engagement and productivity on the job instead of assuming working normal hours and clocking out decreases productivity.
  4. The direct manager has the biggest impact. The direct manager has the biggest impact on the employee experience at work. This means we need to ensure that our managers know how to lead effectively in today’s work environment. Caretaking the culture—coaching and developing employees, creating connections, providing meaningful feedback, encouraging, supporting and recognizing and appreciating—is one of the most important focus areas of leaders today. If managers are too busy fixing issues and dealing with emergencies to invest time and energy into taking care of culture, the organization will suffer increased turnover and will struggle to compete for exceptional talent. I believe most engagement issues are leadership issues. If we want engaged employees, we need engaging leaders. Even the best employees who are typically very committed to their jobs can become disengaged working for an ineffective manager.
  5. Organizations need to define “above and beyond.” Rather than focusing on how many hours an employee is working, we should focus on their results and engagement level. Most discussions around quiet quitting correlated leaving the office on time with putting in minimal effort. In my experience, some of the most successful employees (leaders included) instill great boundaries. Working 10 or 12 hours a day does not mean someone is effective or going above and beyond. In fact, in many cases, an employee who is working that many hours is not managing their focus and energy effectively. Organizations should measure performance based on important competencies and results. For a leadership role, one manager can work 60 hours a week and be an ineffective leader who is stuck in the weeds and doesn’t make time for coaching, feedback or strategic thinking. An exceptional leader can work 40 hours a week and spend that time coaching, developing and supporting their staff to exceed expectations.

Although the phrase quiet quitting is not reflective of the true meaning of the concept, the positive outcome of this employee trend is that it’s deepening the discussion about the reality of work and what it means to be engaged and committed. Great leaders will take the time to reflect on what is being shared and continue to evolve their workplaces to reflect what high-performing employees—who contribute the best results—want at work.

Many would argue that quiet quitting is a practice created by a lazy generation that wants a trendy term to express their dissatisfaction with having higher expectations at work. I believe quiet quitting is less about a generational fad and more about an evolutionary shift in our society, culture and ultimately, our work.

Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CSP, CPCC, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of CUES Supplier member Envision Excellence LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or lmaddalena@envisionexcellence.net.

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