Have you heard much about “quiet quitting” yet? It’s roughly defined as employees being unwilling to give more than 100 percent or go above and beyond their specified job duties. It implies that if employees aren’t giving their all, it’s inherently unfair to their employers. This loosely observed phenomenon is sometimes called an “anti-work” movement and blamed on Gen Z.
I dislike this term intensely. It seems like a media/management label, suggesting that employees are the problem, as if they’re generally unmotivated and holding back—or trying to get away with something. Quiet quitting gets positioned as if it’s not just a form of passive resistance or civil disobedience but is intentionally bad behavior.
I don’t know anybody in any generation who is actually anti-work. I know plenty of people who are against work that doesn’t serve their needs, isn’t fairly rewarded, goes unappreciated, or is not stimulating—and yet people very often do this work anyway because they need the job, they feel obligated, or it’s part of something larger that they care about. But their objections to their work do not come from the fact that it is work.
Sometimes “Quiet Quitters” Are Just Quiet Workers
Here’s what I don’t get. If employees are carrying out their assigned job duties, whether grudgingly or not, what’s the harm and where’s the foul? There’s nothing wrong with employees effectively saying, “Employer, you are not entitled to my entire life. The ways and times I choose to go above and beyond are up to me.” If employers want to keep these people, doesn’t it make sense to take their lives into account? Why should they have “less life” than any of us? Why shouldn’t they be able to determine how much they give, as long as they live up to their commitments? Employers do not and should not control people’s lives.
All my experience says that when people are (1) inspired by their mission, the desire to provide care for customers, solving puzzles and problems, creating good design, arraying data and coming to meaningful conclusions, and so on and (2) if they are getting clear and consistent direction, are treated with high regard and appreciated for their work, are rewarded in meaningful ways, are provided opportunities for growth, and have good relationships with their colleagues, then it’s very unlikely that any kind of quitting will be going on. To put a finer point on it, from what I’ve seen in countless workplaces, most of what goes wrong or gets left undone is not because employees refuse to play the game, but because of unrealistic or unskillful management.
Help Your Employees Turn Up the Volume
If you are a leader or manager and you’re concerned that there’s some kind of intentional job action going on, that employees are somehow resisting their managers—well, pause there before you assume anything negative about your employees. Examine the circumstances and ask directly: “What’s in your way? What would help you deliver on your responsibilities more easily? What would make your job feel more rewarding and give you a greater sense of accomplishment? How could we grow more together, for the sake of our mission and for our own satisfaction?”
Now, it could be that there are behaviors or interactions that you want from your employees but haven’t been getting. Can you be more concrete and specific about them? And if there are assignments you can’t find anyone to do, whether it’s working certain shifts or taking on particular responsibilities, maybe those tasks need to be made more appealing. Or maybe your people need to feel more appreciated or to be compensated better. Everyone expects that some aspects of their job will be annoying, but nobody wants to feel frustrated, resentful, or ill-used all the time.
Focus on Quiet Conversations
And yes, some employees may also have unrealistic expectations. They may not have a good sense of the market value of certain jobs, how the people before them did the work, or even what the best ways to do the job are. To learn whether it’s possible to come to a meeting of the minds, you may need to have a series of heart-to-heart conversations, in which both managers and employees put their expectations and assumptions on the table multiple times.
When people are unhappy enough, they’ll leave. But while they’re with you, most of them want to do the work. So create the conditions under which they can work well. Count on them and partner with them.
We’re in the midst of an ongoing evolution in the relationship between employers and employees. You can choose to lead in this moment rather than getting caught up in negative assumptions. Inspire yourself, and then inspire your people.
And if you’d like some help, let me know.
Onward and upward —