Young leader leaving for the day

How Leaders Can Respond to Quiet Quitting

Each new generation of employees tends to rewrite the rules-of-engagement with their employer.  But against the backdrop of a global pandemic, cries for racial justice, and unprecedented political divisiveness, is it any wonder this generation might be completely ripping up the rules and tik toking their way to a new approach?

One of those ways, quiet quitting, has been gaining traction.  Quiet quitting, unpacked in a popular article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal1, is a phrase bound to make the blood of CEOs across the globe run cold. On face value, the term conjures images of employees tricking their employers into thinking they are working when they are really slacking off.  Their intent sounds nefarious.  It infers a widespread conspiracy for millions of employees to collect a paycheck while failing to work.  The reality is quiet quitting is not about slacking off, but about setting boundaries to create job conditions that are more aligned with personal priorities.  Sound like a fancy way of saying people aren’t working?  It’s not.

Quiet quitting is doing what’s necessary and prioritizing personal priorities

It sounds something like this, “If I’ve done the work I need to do for the day, why not head to a 3 pm yoga class and do something that I want to do?” It is the type of choice employees are making about where to spend their time.  And while there was no technical clock to punch, for years the expectation has been that employees are punching a virtual 9-to-5 clock.  But the problem is the clock wasn’t 9-to-5.  It often started pre-dawn and most certainly extended into the evenings and on weekends.  A new generation of employees is rebelling against this notion choosing to “punch out” when they’ve accomplished what they need to and when they are ready to pursue their own personal interests. 

This flies-in-the-face of how previous generations, many of whom are well represented in the upper levels of organizations, were wired-to-work.  Theirs was a workplace filled with tacit assumptions that employees would look to do more, work more, show up more.  The point, for them, is not that you successfully accomplished what you needed such that you could attend 3:00 yoga, but that you still had at least 2-3 more hours to dig into some other element of work and do more, more, more!  Or that you could use those “extra” hours to linger cube-lined hallways with colleagues, add a new project to your plate, or dive into a training opportunity.  Maybe if you were lucky, you’d get spotted looking busy and important as a senior leader walked by.  Whether or not that sounds appealing, or appalling has everything to do with your perspective on the role work plays in your life and how your job conditions fit your priorities.  It’s that perspective that is undergoing a broader shift – people aren’t leaving responsibility behind as much as they are leaving what they see as the unnecessary extras.

Quiet quitting is defining success differently

Quiet quitting is also rejecting a definition of success marked by getting ahead at all costs – another relic of prior generations.  This is different from saying employees don’t want to evolve and advance.  But they aren’t racing to climb over someone else to take the lead spot.  Even before the pandemic created a massive wake-up call around personal values and priorities, newer employees were defining success differently.  They want balance in their lives – and they are willing to make work related tradeoffs to get it.  They care about doing work that is meaningful, but work isn’t the way they define themselves.  And, yes, they do want compensation and promotion – it’s just not the only thing they want, and they don’t want it at the expense of other aspects of their lives.

The Implications for Leaders

What are the implications for leaders?  The key is in understanding how to work with talented and committed (but not overcommitted) individuals across your team as they navigate their definition of success.  There will be some folks who want to work on weekends and evenings.  And there will be some heading to yoga at 3 pm on a Wednesday.  But bucketing employees into the “hustlers” and the “slackers” is not a good use of time.  A leaders’ job is not to seek conformity, but to understand and work with each individual to help them bring their best to the work they do and to support them in attaining their own definition of success.

How?  First, be open minded.  Stop asking yourself, “Why don’t they want to work more?” “Why don’t they want to come into the office?”  “Why don’t they want to get promoted?”  They aren’t you – and that’s okay. 

Second, don’t judge their choices.  They will do a good job for you – they just might go about it in a different way.  Be willing to experiment and adjust.  Seek to redefine success with a focus on results, more so than activity.  Don’t dismiss compensation and promotion as unimportant – they want those things, and they will get them on the open market. 

Third, get to know them.  What is important to them?  What do they value?  By showing that you value them, all of them, you will get the engagement and, in turn, the productivity you seek.  Better to understand who they are as a person and what they want than to be blind-sided when they quit (for real).

Above all, trust and assume positive intent.  Quiet quitting is a misnomer.  The vast majority of employees want to do a good job.  They want to contribute and find a sense of purpose in the work they do.  They also want to maintain a life outside of work – a life that places equal weight on personal wellness, family, a sense of adventure or whatever values are top of mind for them.  Quiet quitting doesn’t mean nine to five is dead, but maybe five to nine is.

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One Comment

  1. Leah, this is so well written and insightful. It really does take trust and I think thus allows people who are passionate about their career/calling to avoid burnout! As leaders, I feel it is about employing those who take pride in their work and development, and then as you said, hold accountable on their quality and timing of outputs, rather than when they clock in or out.

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