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Let’s Break it Down: Avoid Quiet Quitting Through Clear Expectations and Sustainable Work

Evelyn Carter, PhD
| President
Evelyn is a social psychologist and DEI expert focused on evolving and advancing the practice of diversity, equity, and inclusion.


“Quiet quitting” is the latest trend that’s spilled into mainstream conversation from TikTok, and clearly it has companies worried. Headline after headline warns that “Gen Z is ditching hustle culture” or that employees are looking for ways to do the “bare minimum” at work. But is that really what quiet quitting is about? I’m not entirely sure.

Employees want better harmony between their work and personal lives. In fact, 62% of professionals now feel more empowered to insist on this harmony. Leaders who learn of these statistics, see headlines about “quiet quitting,” and begin to blame their employees for not wanting to work hard enough are focusing on the wrong story. Instead of bemoaning that employees are no longer willing to work themselves to the brink for a paycheck, leaders should consider ways they can make their workplaces more inviting for employees. That is, what are the features of a workplace that are more resistant to “quiet quitting?”

Make job expectations clear

As I read articles on quiet quitting with examples of how people worked before they adopted this new approach to work, I couldn’t help but think, “who would want to work like that under any circumstances?” People described working at such a fast pace over a prolonged period of time that it had consequences on relationships with family and friends and undermined their mental well-being. The downsides here are obvious, which begs the question: why would an employee keep working like this?

I suspect it’s because no one took the time to explain the expectations for their role. Companies that want the best from their employees will provide clearly defined role level expectations for the different jobs within an organization. Do you have multiple levels of a role like consultant or engineer in your company? If so, what distinguishes one level from the next? The differences might be in terms of the work under the employee’s purview, the level of customer or internal client they interact with, or the expectations for delivering work with varying degrees of oversight. But if those expectations aren’t made clear, an employee would reasonably think the way to grow within an organization is just to do more of everything. However, when that “more” doesn’t translate to promotions or pay raises, employees understandably get upset. That is why leaders need to be trained in growth conversations that help employees understand their strengths, areas of improvement, and the likely timeline for demonstrating the required skills for a promotion. Taking the guesswork out makes it less likely that an employee will think, “if I volunteer to work on this project all weekend, I’ll certainly get that promotion.” Instead, they will understand the areas where they should really focus, have more open lines of communication with their manager, and feel less resentment in the process.

Recognize and celebrate the achievements and contributions of your team

One of the other striking characteristics of the quotes from employees who adopted quiet quitting is how invisible they felt. The same person who described working nights and weekends also said they felt taken advantage of by their company. Employees crave, and deserve, recognition for their work. This recognition can be financial, in the form of a year-end or spot bonus, but there are lots of other ways to celebrate team members’ contributions. For some employees, increased visibility with leadership or at the company is a nice reward: if someone came up with a cool design idea that transformed the user experience, invite them to talk about that idea and its impact at a company-wide meeting. For other folks, private recognition may be preferred to public praise: if someone on your team superbly navigated a tricky client interaction, send them a note with specific examples of how they were successful. And, if that person isn’t on your direct team, CC their manager so the feedback can be included in their performance review. These are ways to ensure that if people are going above and beyond, they feel appreciated and supported, not taken advantage of and overlooked.

Encourage sustainability by rejecting outdated measures of productivity

When I was a graduate student, my labmates and I often kept our office door closed. It helped keep out ambient noise, fostered focus during heads down dissertation writing, and gave us privacy during our pre-presentation dance parties. I was shocked to learn that a colleague of mine could not imagine ever closing their office door as a graduate student. They told me that faculty at their university judged productivity based upon whether you were visible in the office or not. Never mind if you were actually doing research-related work or not. What mattered most was being in the physical office, and being seen by the powers that be in said office.

I don’t have the data on whether or not those graduate students were more productive than we were, but I know we were happier. We also had healthier ways of measuring our productivity with our advisor. Instead of getting praised or scolded for being sufficiently visible in the office, our conversations about productivity were focused on the goals we set for that semester and how we were progressing toward those goals. Evaluating people based on the work they’re delivering, rather than extraneous factors like how long they worked on something or how many hours they spent in-office, signals to employees that you value quality work. That’s more empowering than thinking you’ll be celebrated for spending 8 hours in an office with no regard for your output during that time.

The quiet quitting trend is likely closely related to a new reality of how people feel about work. Globally, just 20% of employees report being engaged at work. Employee burnout is at an all-time high. With all that in mind, organizations should be thinking about how to empower employees to have healthy relationships with work, not lamenting that demands for more sustainable jobs are undermining productivity. While “quiet quitting” may be a silly name for the current trend we’re seeing, the idea that people can exert reasonable boundaries to help them be full, happy humans while working is not so silly at all.

August 18, 2022

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