Quiet Quitting Is a Leadership Issue

The notion of “quiet quitting” achieved zeitgeist status earlier this year after American TikTokker Zaid Khan explained the term over soft piano music: “You’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond. You’re still performing your duties, but no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life.”

Having employees attempt to set boundaries is nothing new, which is why some people consider quiet quitting to be a natural response to job creep. In the eyes of this camp, the social media-fueled work-to-rule philosophy is justified by ever-increasing workplace demands that haven’t been matched by similar increases in recognition or compensation, not to mention the growing lack of workplace trust that spawned a surge in the adoption of worker surveillance technology during the pandemic (almost two-thirds of medium-to-large companies in the United States now essentially spy on employees, according to a Wall Street Journal report).

Predictably, quiet quitting has triggered an opposite reaction from some business leaders. Ever since Khan’s video went viral, an endless series of think pieces have attempted to equate the idea with workers who are quick to give up when the going gets tough or, as Arianna Huffington put it, ready to quit “on life” instead of seeking opportunities for “joyful joining.”

From a leadership perspective, it’s easy to interpret a worker’s decision to pull back from going above and beyond as a lack of ambition or concern for their employer.

But that’s as big a mistake as blaming the work ethic of China’s millennials for the local “tangping” movement—a real quitting trend spawned by Luo Huazhong, a former factory employee who blogged about adopting a chill, or “lying flat,” lifestyle after concluding doing nothing was more rewarding than doing unrewarding work.

“A generation ago,” as the New York Times noted in an article on the tangping movement last year, the country’s authoritarianism was widely seen as a “trade-off” that helped lift millions out of poverty. “But with employees working longer hours and housing prices rising faster than incomes, many young Chinese fear they will be the first generation not to do better than their parents.”

Simply put, there’s typically more than a little complexity to the “why” behind any individual’s decision to quit a job outright or perform only the minimum required tasks. And when it comes to quiet quitting, what’s driving interest in the idea probably says more about the state of company cultures following the pandemic than the motivations of specific employees.

Simply put, there’s typically more than a little complexity to the “why” behind any individual’s decision to quit a job outright or perform only the minimum required tasks.

When someone quietly decides to no longer go the extra mile for their employer, two ingredients of a healthy working relationship—trust and clear communication—are typically missing. And while many factors beyond a manager’s control might contribute to an employee reaching this point, the following three particular issues tend to drive workers into a “quiet quitting” experience:

  • Lack of transparency
  • Lack of direction
  • Lack of boundaries

When any or all of these core values are weak or missing in an organization, employees may appear to be throttling back on engagement and commitment as part of some new trend. But when you take a real look at quiet quitting (and its counterpart, “quiet firing”), it’s really a symptom of failed business leadership.

The solution, of course, is to be serious about proactively building these values into your workplace culture to foster trust and an authentic rapport with employees, which increases engagement and decreases the need for morale-depleting practices like clock watching.

Transparency: Expecting people to go above and beyond when helping others reach an unknown destination is unrealistic. That’s why asking employees to work toward unknown goals is counterproductive, leading to confusion, resentment, and eventually withdrawal. Strong business leaders understand that cutting employees out of the loop of organizational realities will only distance them from the company and its leadership. Instead, they keep employees engaged and informed by practising transparency where appropriate. This includes making sure employees know the company’s short- and long-term goals, which is crucial to fostering a shared company culture that supports meaningful employee buy-in. When employees understand the overall objective and how their particular contributions help reach that objective, their sense of engagement with the work—and with the organization itself—increases, while the impulse to withhold effort simultaneously drops.

Direction: Employees are autonomous human beings with individualized sets of motivations, needs, fears, and goals. However, they are not mind readers. When employees guess at what a business leader expects from them, the result can range from confusion to chaos. With no clear guidelines to help them course-correct, they can hardly be faulted for failing to deliver the expected results. Many will choose to pull back their efforts to meet only the expectations of which they are aware, which tend to be the minimum core tasks outlined in the job description. Some leaders fail to communicate expectations to employees out of negligence, while others do so to promote an atmosphere of fear in a misguided attempt to heighten control. In either case, the lack of clarity ultimately disrupts the entire company and obstructs progress toward objectives as measured by key performance indicators. To combat quiet quitting triggered by a lack of direction, create a culture of clarity. Outline expectations for daily, weekly, and yearly output; for participation in meetings; and for all other performance parameters that matter to leadership and that support employees’ own professional growth and development.

Boundaries: Quiet quitting can be symptomatic of a toxic corporate culture that demands too much of its workers. A company’s needs are important, and they fluctuate from time to time—requiring heavier participation from employees (when attempting to meet deadlines, for example). Nevertheless, employees are human with varying personal needs for space and certitude in work conditions, and engagement will suffer when employee boundaries are repeatedly violated. A number of factors—including poor planning, inadequate management, and overinflated egos—drive leaders to run roughshod over employee boundaries. Some leaders simply focus so heavily and intensely on corporate goals and objectives that they neglect the needs of their employees. In these circumstances, withdrawal from work and the decision to deliver only the bare minimum is less a matter of employee confusion and more a matter of self-preservation. That’s why leaders need to identify and respect both time and workload boundaries in order to maximize engagement and cut down on quiet quitting.

Employee engagement flows naturally from strong relationships and shared values, both of which support a culture that drives teamwork rather than one that fosters disengaged transactions. So, if quiet quitting seems to be affecting your workforce, don’t blame a 17-second TikTok video. Instead, examine your commitment to transparency, clear direction, trust, and respect of your employees’ boundaries, while reevaluating management practices from the top down. Rather than deploying worker surveillance technology or managing by clock watching, try using more autonomous goal tracking that doesn’t deeply impact employee morale.

Believe it or not, increasing trust between company leaders and employees pays off in the long run, not only with regard to creating a positive workplace culture, but also in terms of your bottom line.

About the Author

Neil Khaund is the CEO of The National Society of Leadership and Success (NSLS), the largest accredited leadership honor society in the United States. With more than a decade of private sector….Read Neil Khaund's full bio