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Blog Post

How Leadership Can Solve Quiet Quitting

By Matt Whiat, Founding Partner
Gunnar Millot, Client Engagement Specialist

Quiet Quitting

“Quiet Quitting,” the latest workplace-related buzz word. A trending topic on social media and referenced by major news outlets. One that has prompted many to voice their opinions. Unfortunately, the deafening noise surrounding “Quiet Quitting” has created more confusion than clarity. Especially for organizations trying to understand, let alone solve, the problem.

Case in point: In a video recently posted on LinkedIn regarding quiet quitting, Kevin O’Leary noted that “when you bring somebody in that slams shut their laptop at 5 o’clock, you’re introducing a cancer to your culture.” Yet, moments later he stresses that it doesn’t matter what hours you work as long as you are an effective team member and get your job done.

So where are the wires getting crossed? And more importantly, how do you know if this is an issue in your organization and what can you do about it?

Define The Problem

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend the first 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” -Albert Einstein

Thinking about this problem has some challenges. Chief among these being that quiet quitting doesn’t have one agreed-upon definition. It can be categorized as:

  • a noun, as in a person (“They are a quiet quitter”)
  • a concept (“We are faced with quiet quitting”)
  • or a verb (“She is quiet quitting”)

Gallup defines engagement as “the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace.” Considering this framework, quiet quitting is the inverse behavior. An employee who is not actually quitting but doing (at most) the minimum required of them at work.

In a recent survey, 21% of employed Americans say they are doing the bare minimum, in addition to 5% who say they are doing less than they are paid to do. The majority of these individuals submit they are “burned out.” Despite the myriad of definitions and various underlying factors surrounding quiet quitting, 90% of respondents who considered themselves quiet quitters indicated they could be persuaded to work at their full potential.

hawthorne studies

Develop A Change-Ready Culture

It would be easy to devolve this discussion into nothing more than a stereotypical employer vs. employee situation. Or to cite generational differences, the state of the global economy, climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, or any other environmental circumstance as the cause. But it’s not that simple, and while these are all significant factors, they are external – beyond an organization’s control.

No doubt organizations and teams have felt the effects of these external factors. While frustrations about changing employee sentiment and productivity can abound, in the end, change is necessary. What organizations can do is influence the relationship they have with employees. This relationship is what we call, “culture.”

This is not just about solving quiet quitting; this is about evolving your culture to current times. To quote the naturalist, Charles Darwin, “it is not the strongest of species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one most adaptable to change.” The question then becomes, change into what?

Your Employees Don’t Have Complaints, They Have Unmet Needs

The first step in creating an adaptive or change-ready culture is developing a recurring feedback mentality and system. Valuable feedback can be compiled from your employees at the macro-level through engagement surveys, and from your frontline leaders through 1:1 check-ins and recurring work meetings.

Ongoing feedback is critical to understanding not only what factors are influencing specific employees, but also to realize this is not a binary condition. Employees are not software and coded with either a 0 or 1. They are not 100% quiet quitters or 100% engaged employees. Show us a 100% engaged company and we will show you a flawed survey instrument! Perhaps that’s a little too abrupt, but the point still stands—the engagement of your people is not universal or unchanging.

In more complex organizations, the locations, job types, and working conditions all vary – and so will engagement. Knowing what, where, and to what extent is going right, as well as what needs improvement, is key in understanding the issue before jumping to universal solutions or policies that may not be applicable across your organization.

No Policies Solve Bad Leadership

Your culture either encourages or discourages quiet quitters. But it isn’t neutral. And the single largest driver of your culture are your leaders.

No policies solve bad leadership. This isn’t intended to dismiss the other factors such as pay, benefits, remote/hybrid work, vacation time, etc.; it’s to give you an area of focus that will allow you to not just solve the current problem but to build the capacity to navigate your organization through what’s next.

In the great debate on whether leaders are born or made, the answer is: they are all developed. However, leadership development is often de-prioritized down to the level of “something nice to have when we are flush with profits and the organization has the time.” The urgent supersedes the important; the tactical overcomes the strategic. Studies show over 80% of organizations deem leadership development a priority, yet less than 10% develop leaders at all levels. Further, organizations that embrace a more inclusive approach to leadership development at all levels are 4x more likely to outperform those that develop only at the management level.

A recent Harvard Business Review article “Leadership Training Shouldn’t Just Be for Top Performers” coined this the Leadership Development Paradox: the premise that leadership development is typically restricted to the senior levels, or those employees deemed high potential. The paradox being those who arguably need leadership development the most aren’t getting it. With roughly 80% of an organization’s employees reporting into a front-line leader, bringing leadership development to all levels of an organization is critical to ensure unity and quality of culture.

For organizations on a tighter budget, invest the time into development through mentorship programs, group learning opportunities during breaks, book studies, and after-action project discussions that include leadership as a component of the debrief.

Accountability is a Two-Way Street

Before they can hold employees accountable, leaders must hold themselves accountable to those in their span of care. In fact, 84% of employees surveyed in a workplace accountability study cited the way leaders behave as the single most important factor influencing accountability.

This behavior needs to go beyond just setting clear expectations and measuring against those expectations. It includes creating an environment of clear purpose, giving employees the ability to inform how the work happens/improves, ensuring the tools and training are effective and existent, providing positive and developmental feedback, and the ability for the employee to measure progress and success along the way.

You might be nodding your head and thinking, “Yes, of course, we do all of those things.” In that case, for those who employ a full or partial virtual working environment, did you provide training on how to effectively use most aspects of the virtual calling software (Zoom, Teams, etc.)? Did you set clear expectations for all participants? And most importantly, when you set those expectations, did you mandate compliance with a company policy? Did you say, “Everyone on video and pay attention,” or did you inspire excellence by giving context as to why being on video (when possible) is important for all team members to create greater communication and collaboration?

Whenever crafting policy or company communications, ask yourself, “Am I mandating compliance or inspiring excellence?” For more information on how to simultaneously drive accountability and care for your people, read “6 Steps to Building Corporate Culture.”

People Will Never Forget How You Made Them Feel

The poet, Maya Angelou, said it best, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” A culture adapting to change includes leaders who genuinely care. Care for the people and care for the business. These are not in opposition. Here are 6 questions every leader should ask their direct reports during their next 1:1 meeting:

  1. How are your hours (or workload)?
    Gather sentiment about how an employee feels about their current level of effort.
  1. How are you feeling about the job right now?
    Understand an employee’s mindset toward the job and recognize indications of burnout if the response is “stressed, overwhelmed, out of control.”
  1. What are your current job priorities?
    If everything is a priority, then you have no priorities. Establishing priorities allows your people to focus on what is most important. This isn’t an easy or fun exercise, but force-ranking any list (top to bottom) is a respectful endeavor to embark on for each and every team member.
  1. What is the most frustrating thing about your job?
    Focusing on the frustration humanizes the role—everyone has a feeling of frustration in their job—and eliminating this frustration leads to a more fulfilling job and typically increases efficiency.
  1. What’s something most people don’t know about your job, but you wish they did?
    To quickly learn a lot about a role, ask this question. Typically, answers will fall into two categories: Employees wanting to convey how hard they are working (effort) and their desire to convey the impact they have (importance).
  1. How can I be a better leader to you?
    Developing leaders use feedback to help chart their course. They also display the behaviors (asking how to improve) they want to see in others. Developing leaders also recognize context is paramount and feedback is the pathway refining how they can be better in their particular role. Please note, not all team members feel confident enough to provide this feedback readily. Stating that you know there are areas where you can be better, and everyone is sharing these opportunities to be better, is helpful in this area.

Avoid The “Negativity Bias” Trap

Negativity bias is the tendency not only to register negative stimuli more readily but also to dwell on these events. Remember the last time you looked at a test you took or a report on your performance? The fact that you paid the most attention to the negative remarks or areas to improve are natural. We are hardwired to look for what is a threat, what is not going well.

Provided, in this context, we are actively looking for those deemed as quiet quitters. In doing so we forget the others who are actively engaged. The Pareto Principle describes an 80/20 rule, where in this case, if 20% of your people aren’t engaged, don’t lose sight of the 80% who are.

How do you do this? Through recognition. Change-ready cultures have a commonality of recognizing behaviors they want to see replicated more by others. Lean into finding people leaning in and publicly recognize these team members for their example, for their effort, and for their excellence.

As your culture navigates changes, ensuring your people feel appreciated is not the sole responsibility of your CEO, but of every leader at every level. It’s important to remember that all your team members are there by choice. They have opportunities elsewhere. Earn their choice.

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