8 Home Truths About Quiet Quitting

You might have seen that quiet quitting is the latest topic that people just won’t be quiet about. Like the blue dress/gold dress or pineapple on pizza, everyone has a point of view and opinions are split.

So I’d like to help.

For years I’ve worked with employees and leaders who’ve encountered this phenomenon at different times and in different ways, and successfully helped them navigate it with clarity and purpose.

So buckle up and lean in, here are 8 home truths about quiet quitting.

1. Replace “quitting” with “boundaries”

As a baseline, the term “quiet quitting” is deeply misleading. Most often it’s about setting boundaries and establishing priorities rather than a desire to disengage or call it in. Attempts to villainise, judge or blame those who choose to “quietly quit” are misplaced at best, toxic at worst.

Everyone with a job needs to understand their priorities and where the lines are. Doing so allows for a forward motion towards boundaries, not a backwards motion from engagement.

Got a family? Great, set a time after which you devote your attention to them. Taking on an additional project feels like it would bring you to breaking point? Communicate the reality of your experience in clear terms, and perhaps suggest a different solution. Asked to take a dodgy shortcut that flies in the face of your values? Plant your feet and stick to your guns.

Boundaries are the means by which you retain agency over what matters to you.

2. Adjust the norms

9pm is not part of the working day. 12 hour working days are not “the norm”. Nor is spending Sunday morning “catching up”.

People are burnt out, stressed and under-appreciated, and a workplace that tacitly or explicitly expects the workforce to go above and beyond is not a healthy workplace.

Behind this expectation are a couple of problematic assumptions:

  • Grafters win, slackers lose. When leadership buy into this kind of hustle culture, even without being aware of it, they’re fuelling burnout and creating an environment that overlooks people who do great work within the boundaries of their job description.
  • That an individual is perfectly happy to go above and beyond in perpetuity. Sure, sometimes there are deadlines and sometimes the volume of work overspills the available time, but this should be the exception, not the rule.

More times than I’d ever like to, I’ve observed leaders springing last-minute changes/work onto their teams and simply expecting them to work into the small hours to get it done, which is especially galling when they haven’t supported the team in the preceding days.

Without challenging the assumptions that lie behind the expectation that people have to do extra, any workforce is on the road towards burnout.

So adjust the norms and reset what’s expected.

Hint: A good thing to expect is that everyone gets to contribute to great work in line with their values.

3. It’s not a level playing field

Those assumptions I mentioned above? They’re founded on the core assumption that everybody’s in the same boat and it’s a level playing field. Which is, of course, fantasy.

Women have been shown to be disproportionately taking on work that nobody else picks up, for example, from those pesky tasks like planning office events, tracking team birthdays, and organising leaving do’s, as well as needing to consider how to play the good ol’ patriarchy.

And of course workplaces are more neurodiverse than ever, with neurodiverse individuals having to do more simply to be perceived on a level playing field with their neurotypical colleagues.

There’s inherent privilege in being able to step back from additional work and stick to your boundaries without having to worry about the outcome or how doing so might shift perception towards you.

This doesn’t mean that these individuals are damned if they do/damned if they don’t; it means that:

  • it’s more important for them to be clear about and express the realities of their working experience
  • Workplace culture needs to consider these variables rather than operate by assumption

4. There’s a personal cost to the underbelly of quiet quitting

Many years ago, when I was a bright young thing with a full head of hair in my IT career, I learned the hard way that simply turning up and calling it in comes at a heavy personal cost.

I’d moved into a job and company I hated, so I’d been calling it in, treading water and doing the basics, while simultaneously putting effort into fitting in and flying under the radar so I wouldn’t be singled out. The days rolled by, turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months. With no real evidence of my capability and my self-efficacy evaporating like a puddle in the noon-day sun, inch by inch my self-confidence collapsed, until BOOM. Breakdown.

This is perhaps an extreme example of disengagement and disconnection, but the point remains — there is no staying still in life. Just doing the bare minimum and making the choice not to engage comes at the cost of your self-confidence and wellbeing.

Quiet quitting may be a healthy thing to do to maintain priorities, values, and wellbeing, but there’s a line that can be crossed if you’re not paying attention.

The trick to successful quiet quitting is to ensure that there’s stretch, growth and connection happening somewhere else.

5. Leadership needs to lean in

In the time leading up to my breakdown, part of my reasoning for disengaging so totally was because I wasn’t valued in the organisation.

If the leadership don’t give a toss about me, went my reasoning, then why the hell should I give a damn about the work?

Again, my response and the eventual outcome was out there towards the extreme, but you can see how a choice to quietly quit might stem from a perceived lack of investment from the leadership. As I’ve seen many times in organisations and in my clients, sometimes it’s not about saying “Yes” to boundaries, wellbeing or other priorities, it’s saying “No” because you don’t feel valued, challenged or even respected.

Leaning in and addressing this isn’t about becoming the organisational equivalent of a fluffer, it’s not molly-coddling and it’s not box-ticking. It spans from something as simple as saying “Thank you for your effort today”, through to more formal or structured reviews, and on towards career-planning.

If one of the fundamental roles of a leader is to nurture an environment where people can do great work and grow (and it is), then it’s impossible to do that without leaning in and supporting individuals.

6. Engagement, baby

Quiet quitting is roughly defined as comprising the roughly half of workers who are neither “engaged” nor “actively disengaged”, so let’s dip our toes into those pools for a moment.

Not engaged.

There have always been swathes of people who aren’t engaged by the work they do, but now, in a post-Covid environment many are asking themselves bigger questions and looking at how they can get more engagement and meaning into their work.

If you’re not engaged in Job A it’s entirely possible you’ll be more engaged in Job B, so if you identify with this cohort the task facing you is to figure out the qualities of the job, the capabilities you get to apply and the outcomes worked towards that would have you making a deliberate choice to engage.

Actively disengaged.

Just as I disengaged from my IT job all those years ago, the people in this group have either made a deliberate decision to disengage out of self-protection or a clash of values, or have disengaged through a thousand tiny cuts to their self-confidence. If this is you, you’re beyond quiet quitting and in the realm of needing to make a new choice that serves you well. Because staying still sure as hell isn’t serving you well.

Whichever group you find yourself in there’s work to be done, and it’s often bloody hard work to boot. But my god is it ever worth it.

7. Get AMP’d up

It’s impossible for me to talk about “engagement” without pulling Daniel Pink’s “Drive” off my bookshelf. In it, he explores intrinsic human motivation and argues against out-dated models of motivation that are driven by extrinsic factors/rewards and fear of punishment/judgement. (Go read it if you haven’t; it’s brilliant).

There are 3 elements to this intrinsic motivation:

Autonomy — The desire to be self directed, focusing on engagement over compliance.
Mastery — The urge to hone a craft, grow capabilities and become better skilled.
Purpose — The desire to do something that has meaning, is important or honours your values.

If quiet quitting is a means of driving intrinsic motivation/engagement then great (e.g. by giving you the time, space and energy for a passion project or side hustle). Fill your boots.

Otherwise, you might yourself slipping from the “not engaged” group into the “actively disengaged” group mentioned earlier. Should that happen, ask yourself what might give you more autonomy, mastery and purpose. What might need to change for you to get more of that?

For leaders and organisations, all 3 of these areas need to be tackled strategically and comprehensively, otherwise you’re running a workplace where quiet quitting can easily become the de facto standard. Especially with members of Gen Z enter into workplaces in ever greater numbers, this is becoming an imperative, not an elective.

8. You don’t have to stop giving a shit

You can work within the confines of a job description and still give a shit. You can still have high standards. You can still care about doing great work. You can still care about the connections you make at work. You can still care about your contribution.

Caring about one thing doesn’t mean you’re unable to care about something else. It’s not binary. You can care about your family, care about your health, care about your wellbeing, care about a passion project or care about a zillion other things, and still care about your day job.

Don’t conflate quiet quitting with quitting caring.

In fact, quiet quitters are often more attuned to what matters and what they care about — and hence make conscious, deliberate choices that honour and respect those things.

And here’s the bottom line…

Keep making decisions that serve you well. Where you can employ a strategy of quietly quitting to get greater wellbeing or pursue what matters to you, go for it.

For leaders/employers, remember that people do they best they can with what they have. Always. Don’t penalise someone for quietly quitting. Perhaps use it to understand more about what drives them, or check the assumptions/expectations you hold that might be impacting your workforce.

Because at the end of the day, it’s on all of us to combat stress and burnout, and to go after what matters.

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