Who Is to Blame for Quiet Quitting? We Are. Here's Why (and What to Do About It)
We can solve quiet quitting without shaming our employees — or losing them altogether.
You have probably heard of quiet quitting. If you haven't, it's simple: An employee continues to do their job — there's no actual quitting involved — but they disengage. They don't give 110%. They don't even give 100%. Their heart is no longer in their work (if it ever was). And so, they don't sit up, they slouch. They do only what they must.
What do we do, then, to address this? Clean house? Fire the quiet quitters and strike fear in all who are left? Install spyware on their work computers that monitors all that they do? Many will offer that kind of advice. They'll give hard-nosed guidance for how to get 110% from our people — which is both unreasonable and logically impossible. That path is a dead end.
By taking a long, hard look at how we do things and acting on the faults we see there, we can solve the problem of quiet quitters once and for all.
Where did quiet quitting come from?
Word of quiet quitting has spread via social media, LinkedIn in particular, and much has been written about it since then. Many erroneously see remote and hybrid work as catalysts. Workers aren't saying "hello" at their coworkers' glamorous cubicles; they're not getting in-the-flesh visits from immediate supervisors and pats on the back from well-compensated executives. They're on longer leashes than before, and now this disaster — a quiet, but rampant innovation-killer — has struck.
On that point, I am skeptical. Time spent in the confines of the office does not equal greater productivity, creativity or innovation. Let's admit it: Too much of traditional office time consists of long lunches, sharing company rumors, zoning out at a desk and fretting over the next visit to the corner office.
Quiet quitting did not start with remote work and its lack of supervision. It's only that people are talking about it now. If anything, that is what is new about all of this: We're finally opening up about something we couldn't discuss at work for many years, lest we get overheard.
Why are people really quiet quitting?
Let's try talking with a random employee in our organization. Ask a few questions, like, "Could you describe your company's strategy?" "What are your organization's current goals and KPIs, and how you are contributing toward them?" "When was the last time you were given an honest update on how the company is doing overall?"
If we get clear, accurate, unhesitating responses, then congratulations. We don't likely have an opaque culture that stimulates quiet quitting, and it's likely because we're among those who have taken the right steps to ensure our people are fully engaged — not only with their own duties but with the company as a whole.
Quiet quitting results from not doing what it takes to ensure employees can answer questions like those above. From the jump, quiet quitters were probably never truly engaged with the company or organization they work for. They don't have a voice, don't feel essential and don't know why what they do matters. They're acting in a way that seems right.
Quiet quitting is not a disease. It's a symptom of a disease, and the cure does not lie in shaming quiet quitters or pulling them back to the office so they can quietly quit under our noses without mentioning it again. If forced, once they're back in the building, employees will start looking for the exits in favor of finding another job where they can be free and make their own choices, like the adults they are.
All of us, managers and leaders, should look in the mirror, take stock of how we do things, and see what wrinkles we can iron out. Let's find where we're losing the people we've hired and see what we can do to correct that. Here are five things to consider.
1. Start at the very beginning
What does it look like when we bring a new employee into the fold? What are they told about their place in the organization? How aware are they, not just of what's expected of them and how they can best perform their duties, but of the long-term or even short-term goals of the company as a whole?
Most of us have visions for our companies, not to mention metrics that we're striving for. But when have we communicated that to the people who are there to help us achieve it?
2. Put the big picture on display
What do we do on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis to promote a real sense of psychological safety, openness and belonging among our employees? How do we keep them informed about the company's long-term goals so they don't get lost in the bureaucracy and day-to-day tasks?
If we have quiet quitters working for us, the answer to those questions is likely "Geez, I don't know," "Nothing" or something similar. Or the things we've been doing are not quite enough, and it's time for a reevaluation.
3. Stop talking. Start listening.
Leaders don't have a monopoly on vision. We can learn a lot from the people we've hired — surely that's part of why we hired them in the first place. Perhaps it's time for genuine connection, where we listen, rather than talk, and we see what they have to say, rather than tell them what we think.
Let's not ask, "How happy are you with your job?" Let's be real. No one who's unhappy at work will risk losing a job by saying so to the boss. Instead, let's ask where an employee thinks the company is headed. Ask for one thing they would change about the job, and see what we can do about the bureaucracy, dysfunction and inefficiencies that your "quit quitters" are surely noticing.
4. When all else fails, let go
It's true: Sometimes it's time for quiet quitters to quit less quietly, and the best thing is to part ways. Sometimes it is not about what we're doing wrong or not doing at all, and we must cut ties. There is nothing shameful about that.
It could be that we hired the right person, but they're not in the best place to do their best.
Going separate ways is for the better. We can also pay the disengaged people to quit. It's been done before, with good results for everyone. But if we do this, it's important to engage the rest of the workforce to make sure we're doing more than weeding out the ranks seasonally.
5. Take a look in the mirror
Too many commentators write and talk about quiet quitting without considering the root cause of the problem. Too often the attitude toward them is shaming and punitive.
But it's not about the people who work for us. It's about us and what we have done or not done to ensure our organization behaves like a well-oiled startup.
Innovation requires freedom, and being an employer of choice requires that we liberate our people to be themselves and do their best. We must accept that our employees are likely to have ideas on how to grow and streamline the organization that could be way better and more informed than ours.
People are quiet quitting because we aren't being realistic and taking personal responsibility as leaders. We're forgetting how to drive an engaged and transparent culture of innovation. And that is what we must understand if we're to fix this problem.
This article originally appeared in Entrepreneur Magazine on November 3, 2022