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Ways to combat the ‘quiet quitting’ revolution

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The buzzword 'quiet quitting' is relatively new, but the phenomenon isn't. Disgruntled employees have always existed but the question of how HR can revive their motivation at work remains valid.

25th Nov 2022
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Football has been stealing the headlines recently for a number of reasons. Qatari inequity, inequality and injustice. As well as the long-running saga of Ronaldo’s exit from Manchester United which saw the Portuguese star going through the motions of professionalism before eventually exploding and quitting the club in a media bang. The fallout has parallels in many other professions.

In the same way that a cat burglar doesn’t steal cats and a gravy train is not a train carrying gravy, so too is ‘quiet quitting’ a misnomer. While it's neither 'quiet' nor 'quitting', it's become a buzzword for disgruntled employees and is gaining momentum in work cultures around the globe.

In effect, an employee is resigned to living a working life without engagement, motivation, or satisfaction

Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit (Vince Lombardi)

This seemingly new phenomenon is probably as old as the hills, an ancient concept dressed in new clothes, defined also as being ‘on autopilot’, a term popular in the 1990s. Similarly ‘going through the motions’ was already used in the early 1800s (neatly coinciding with the advent of the Industrial Revolution). Therefore, this is by no means a new phenomenon. However, our sensitivities have thankfully changed and we are more attuned to the needs of employees and the need to foster an energised workplace.

Quiet quitting is variously defined as “not being engaged”; a style of working that sees employees “avoiding the above and beyond, the hustle culture mentality”; “saying ‘no more’ instead of ‘yes’” or simply “doing what you’re paid for”.

The best way to guarantee a loss is to quit (Morgan Freeman)

The term does not refer to the physical act of quitting albeit quietly, but rather a mental state in which an employee has given up on their meaningful role within a company. In effect, an employee is resigned to living a working life without engagement, motivation, or satisfaction. An extremely sad state of affairs and to call this state of mental lethargy “quiet quitting” does not do justice to the severity of this state. 

In effect, quiet quitting is that point in the crystallisation of a long psychological process where things have finally taken shape in the mind of the employee. This mental state represents a juncture in the working life of an employee where they no longer want to be engaged in the company in which they work.

Some may see this as a way of regaining control in an environment where control has been lost, although, in truth, there are no winners here. The employee loses his sense of self-determination within the working environment and the employer loses that golden fairy dust which is ‘motivated engagement’.

Most people work just hard enough not to get fired and get paid just enough money not to quit (George Carlin)

The formal foundation of the working relationship is of course the employment contract and both parties need to see, feel, and quantify that each is getting the most out of the relationship and each is being treated fairly. This is transactional and quiet quitting is one signal (perhaps the final signal) that this relationship has fallen out of sync and oftentimes into disrepair. There is too much (or too little) on one side of the scale.

Not wanting to be too simplistic but for the necessity of brevity, let us say that quiet quitting demonstrates a lack of motivation and engagement either from one or even both parties in the working relationship. 

To find the golden fairy dust of ‘motivated engagement’ – it is worth looking at some of the science behind employee engagement

Hell is paved with good intentions and roofed with lost opportunities (Portuguese proverb)

Companies are currently investing huge amounts in improving employee engagement, workplace mental health and worker wellness. Figures show that the total annual cost of poor mental health to the UK private sector was approximately £45 billion in 2020-21, up 25% from pre-pandemic estimates in 2019.

Companies invest yet the Great Resignation continues. 2022 statistics show that 20% of workers are planning to quit soon so despite the seemingly good intentions of employers to support employees, something is being lost.

In wanting to find the hidden golden mean between employer and employee – or the golden fairy dust of ‘motivated engagement’ – it is worth looking at some of the science behind employee engagement. One of the finest studies undertaken in recent years is the CIPD’s 2021 Discussion Report entitled Employee Engagement – Definitions, Measures and Outcomes.

Not only does it provide the reader – HR professional and L&D adept – with a solid look at the literature but also defines the key terms in order to understand and confront this issue. 

The CIPD report lists nine factors that drive work motivation:

1. Goal-setting

consciously deciding goals for employees, teams, or organisations, setting time frames and monitoring progress

2. Feedback

Providing information about a person’s performance as a basis for improvement.

3. Recognition

Providing personal, non-monetary rewards for individual efforts to recognise and reinforce desired behaviours

4. Monetary rewards

Pre-determined criteria and understood policies for allocating financial incentives

5. Perceived work meaningfulness

Ensuring personal growth and enabling employees to help others and contribute to the greater good

6. Perceived supervisory support

Providing positive interaction and feedback to employees from managers

7. Empowerment/autonomy

Allowing employees both responsibility and autonomy to decide how to do their job

8. Psychological safety

A shared belief held by members that the group is safe for ‘interpersonal risk-taking’ – perceiving that speaking up will not result in ridicule or rejection

9. Perceived fairness/justice

Subjective fairness, perceived by employees

Of all the stratagems, to know when to quit is the best (Chinese proverb)

If employers use these nine factors as a ‘checklist’ in order to gauge the state of the working relationship, then we are certainly stepping in the right direction. That said, quiet quitting cannot be solely ‘blamed’ on the employer and the responsibility to take care of oneself and to ensure that these nine factors are implemented also rests with the employee. It may be a truism but if we do not take care of ourselves, we cannot expect others to do it for us.

In times of austerity and the Great Resignation, the level of trust between employer and employee needs to be upped

In theory, both the employer and employee can terminate the agreement if the conditions of the contract are not being fulfilled by the other party. In theory. In times of austerity and the Great Resignation, the level of trust between employer and employee needs to be upped. Bring quiet quitting out into the open. We either build more points of contact and communication opportunities into our workplaces to nurture open conversations and trust or run the risk of ramping up conflict, inner frustration and quiet quitting.

In our need to foster partnership, perhaps all we need are nine factors.

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