‘Quiet Quitting’ Is An Old Problem With New Branding

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Fun alliteration aside, it's just a new version of the old cynicism—and leaders should not stand for it.

As the employment world seems to be raging with the new Millennial and Gen Z work ethic challenge named “quiet quitting,” it might be time to make some sense of it and gain control.

First, work-life balance is not a new phenomenon. It is not as though people who joined the workforce two decades ago committed to a life of slavery at the expense of family and personal pursuits, and only the new generation discovered life beyond the workplace. We’ve always struggled with finding the right balance. And it often has meant different things to different people. In fact, two examples may serve as a reminder.

In 1989 Scott Adams, then an employee of Pacific Bell, started his Dilbert comic strip celebrating laziness and incompetence in the workplace. This highly popular comic strip was embraced by many employees who affixed their favorite strip to their cubicle wall as a form of protest against corporate tyranny. In France, Bonjour Paresse was published by Corrine Maier in 2004, followed by the English version, Welcome Laziness, in 2005. In her book, Ms. Maier develops a manifesto and guidelines on how to do the bare minimum in order not to get fired. These cultural examples are representing similar symptoms of the same deep issue.

So, what’s new now?

We are experiencing the confluence of several factors that have merged into a phenomenon. The Zoom-based work experience came with a massive price. Employees focus on task completion, but have experienced a significant reduction in belonging and purpose at the workplace. Additionally, the Zoom-based performance eroded colleagues’ loyalty, and commitment to customers. Seeing your customers by Zoom or conducting happy hour online will never reach the same level of human engagement that face-to-face meetings produce. As such, it has resulted in erosion of overall satisfaction, sense of impact and ultimately employment definition. Many employees function as though they are in the gig economy but with a steady paycheck. (All the rewards without the risk.) Add to that a heightened awareness around mental health, which has contributed to a greater awareness of personal discomfort, depression and anxiety, and a healthy job market boosting employee confidence that they can find a job (or more accurately a meal ticket) elsewhere fast, so coasting became less dangerous. Wrap these factors in a nice new branding—”quiet quitting”—and we have a new threat to worry about.

What is wrong with nine-to-five performance?

Nothing is wrong with employees doing what they are paid for.  This is, however, not what we are dealing with. Quiet quitting is not just about employees refusing to answer email after hours. It is rooted in far deeper issues and carries significant negative impact. The three main impacts you need to consider are:

1. Quality of work erosion. When your mindset is that work is a distraction, you will not stop at working only nine-to-five; you will question even the tasks you do during that schedule. There is a high likelihood that the quality of work you deliver is going to erode, which translates into less competitive products for customers who are demanding more.

2. Mediocrity culture. When some people start loosening their commitment to work, others will soon follow. You are as good as your weakest link. Those who seek work-life balance can pursue it in better ways than deploying quiet quitting, which will spread a negative vibe in the organization.

3. Risking the future. People who are committed to a limited work schedule are also less likely to get involved in future work and innovation. They tend to focus on short-term tasks and projects. The organization will lose its horizon in this way and will risk its strategic relevance.

Quiet quitting is like cancer in the organization. It’s the new version of the old cynics who are raising a flag of “why bother?” and dragging everyone with them into the sense of “none of this is worth my time and efforts.” I cannot imagine any leader who would knowingly allow such a cancer within their organization.

What can leaders do to address it?

In short, plenty. The first thing is to stop panicking. The “it’s all completely new” camp will want you to believe this new phenomenon requires a new toolbox of restructuring work and employment, and re-engineering your business. While there is some restructuring needed, it needs to be done within a context. Start by realizing that the problem is real, but not new.  It was merely exacerbated by the Zoom-based performance that was prevalent in your organization as part of surviving the pandemic.

As a leader you need to go to the root cause and address several issues in a positive way.  It is time for a refresher on the basics, which should infuse everyone with a strong sense of belonging and commitment.  Those renewal activities should include the following:

1. Purpose is prime. The past few years have focused employees on small tasks at the expense of the big picture. It is time to renew and reiterate what we are here for and what unites us as an organization.  Create events and daily rituals that discuss the purpose and vision and invite employees to participate, contribute and commit to the greater good we are all part of.

2. Ownership. While task orientation may be useful, it relieves the individual from full ownership. A sense of pride and ownership needs to be instilled in employees. When projects are introduced and tasks distributed, a clear ownership need to be assigned with the understanding that failure is not an option. Document ownership with names, times, and process to achieve it.  It is time to get people in the same room looking at each other (without personal dogs walking in the background) and commit to gather.

3. Responsibility to the customers. Go and see customers face to face. Reacquaint yourself and your employees with the real human beings you serve and deliver solutions to.  It will reinforce the purpose as well, since customers are the reason you are in business. They pay the bills and every employee owes them their best. (That is easy to forget that when you are in a Zoom session with them while you are in your PJs.) This narrative needs to be placed front and center.

4. Alignment. Link all tasks into the big picture. Employees need to see the dependency they have on each other and how all tasks are aligned. It needs to be done in a way that they see the responsibility they have to the bigger picture and its components. Again, face-to-face meetings in offices, conferences and events can establish a stronger commitment. While flex time is important, it should not come at the expense of achieving our goals. The pendulum has shifted one way and it is time to bring it back to real balance.

5. Accommodation, when needed. It is in the context of all the above aspects that we can consider accommodation or changes to the workload, time at the office, employees’ special needs, etc. Only those employees who demonstrate commitment, ownership and responsibility deserve those accommodations. If you are merely a meal ticket to an employee, no accommodation will ever be sufficient. But if they are committed to the purpose, ownership and customers, then accommodation is the right thing to do for the business and the employee.

6. Let the resistant strains go. Some employees are in the wrong job. Their cynicism and quiet quitting is stemming from a mismatch that will never be resolved in this current workplace. For your good and theirs, they need to go and find where their heart will beep with happiness. They do not connect to the purpose. They will never dare to say during a job interview, “I hate what you do but I need to find a way to pay the bills and you are the cheapest, laziest way I found.” These employees are beacons of mediocrity that reach far and reflect on all employees. Every manager needs to assess their team members and identify who might be the cynics that need to find happiness outside of your payroll.  And those who need to find meaning within your organization are welcome to join the series of renewal events of purpose, ownership, customer responsibility and alignment, as described above.

Millennials and Gen Z did not invent humanity. Humans always wanted to live life in a happy, peaceful and meaningful way. Quiet quitting is merely a new brand of old human pursuit. We all lived through a very tough time and our connections with everything from work to family have taken a beating. We all need to reflect and renew those connections. Some of us will renew the old connections, while others will redefine them and some will create totally new ones. A passive approach such as quiet quitting is not an option. It is important not to view it as a new phenomenon leading to helplessness, shock and possibly extreme actions. Instead, it is time to face the challenge with the human sensitivity of recognizing the painful experience we all went through, the damage it created to belonging and connections, and then apply the tool kit we have developed throughout the years to rebuild renew and create better future.

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