What does it mean to be a quiet quitter?
Quiet quitting is a description for people who are unhappy in their job but, for whatever reason, don’t feel able to leave. As a result, they reduce the effort that they are putting into their job, doing the minimum and nothing beyond.
Quiet quitting as a term took off in summer 2022 after a US TikTokker posted a video that went viral saying “work is not your life”, as reported here on BBC News. This resonated with the post-Covid feelings of millions of employees.
But it’s a significant threat to both short- and long-term organisational performance. And it’s something that all company executives and leaders should be concerned about and take action to address.
It eats away at all aspects of the effective operation of the organisation; its ability to deliver strategic objectives and achieve its vision.
Employees who are quiet quitting are a real drain on team performance and can negatively affect workplace culture.
What’s caused quiet quitting?
Quiet quitting has always been with us but the Covid-19 pandemic massively increased the potential for it. It’s caused by the same drivers which gave us the ‘Great Resignation’. So, what caused the Great Resignation?
One simple phrase explains both quiet quitting and is the impetus for the Great Resignation – our experiences create our perceptions. These then determine our behaviour at work in response to different situations.
As the Great Resignation, or indeed also the great ‘I’m not even going back’, started all of us had come through two years of being locked in and locked down. We all saw serious illness on a scale that none of us had ever experienced. Some of us also suffered a personal tragedy. It brought home to each of us how precious and short life could be.
As a result of this potentially traumatic life experience for all of us, lots of people reprioritised what was important in life. For most, this meant that the importance of work significantly dropped compared to the importance of family, free time, quality of life and wellbeing. It was probably the greatest reality check many of us have ever experienced.
It was those changed perceptions that raised the benchmarks by which we measured what we wanted and expected from work, especially from our leaders.
What drives quiet quitting or resigning?
People are no longer prepared to tolerate poor leadership, overwork and antisocial hours, unfair rules, not being treated with respect, having our private lives undervalued, and not being able to grow and develop as a person or see a positive future ahead. So the benchmark against which people measured their leaders and organisations was raised. Leaders who were tolerated before the pandemic were now seen in a new light and seen as unacceptable – so people left. Analytics firm Gallup reports that this is reflected in falls in employee engagement in many countries.
The reasons for which people left organisations are likely to be very similar to the reasons which trigger quiet quitting, so it’s worth looking at the headline reasons for departure as reported by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
- Uncaring leaders: not feeling valued by the boss or the organisation
- No sense of belonging
- Lack of flexible working
- Lack of visible potential advancement
- Unmanageable workload
- Lack of engagement
- Poor work-life balance
However, how many of us are in a secure enough financial position to leave our jobs without one to go to ? Not many. Not everyone can leave when they want, despite a rise in those prepared to do so even without a job to go to.
With a leader who doesn’t meet their standards, people who can’t leave will stay as ‘quiet quitters’ until they can. Just doing enough to get by. In particular Generation Z – that’s those born after 1995 – have a very different view of the priority between work and personal time, and what they expect from their leaders and organisations. They view the reasons listed in the infographic more negatively than other groups and expect a greater focus on wellbeing in the workplace.
It’s also worth noting that many employers don’t often recognise or admit the key drivers for resignations, they say it’s other things which they cannot control like employees leaving through sickness or being poached by competitors to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the departure.
Why is quiet quitting so dangerous?
Quiet quitting is more dangerous precisely because you’re not resigning. It can have a greater negative impact on organisations than if people just left. If somebody leaves, they are gone and can be replaced by somebody prepared to give maximum effort – often coming in as an enthusiastic new employee. If they stay, their negative impact could linger for months if not years, and attitudes impact their colleagues.
Despite the damage they are potentially causing, identifying quiet quitters and trying to re-engage them can be extremely difficult for a leader. Those who quiet quit could be underperforming by 30% on their potential performance. Not only that but if their behaviour starts to have a negative impact on others in the team – they become disengaged and damaging. It’s reported by Gallup that you need to have four engaged employees to counter the negative impact of every one disengaged quiet quitter.
Daily examples of quiet quitting
It might be useful to give a few practical examples of what the difference is in terms of day-to-day behaviour between those who are engaged – giving their best – and those who are quiet quitting, by definition not engaged or even disengaged. Here we illustrate the significant negative impact which this can have.
How widespread is the problem of quiet quitting?
The figures for the number of people leaving jobs have increased but there is an additional and worrying dynamic. Before the pandemic, most people wouldn’t leave a job unless they had a new one, but now the number who will has significantly increased. Potentially up to 60 to 70% of people are now prepared to leave without a job if they feel they need to, say McKinsey & Company. Global media company Forbes also reports that this is particularly affecting the Gen Z group, where 77% are already thinking of leaving, a precursor to quiet quitting and potentially departure.
This single change in perception vastly increases the ease and speed at which people can leave. No longer does there have to be a long and sustained period of dissatisfaction with your boss or research into potential new jobs. If you don’t care about having another job, your departure decision can be very swiftly implemented and it could be triggered by just one incident which has pushed you too far.
The data on how many people leave organisations versus those who are potentially quiet quitting is dramatic. Standard organisational turnover could be between 10 to 15%, but in annual surveys, the number of people who say they might consider leaving organisations if they could find a better job is around 40%, rising to 54% for Gen Z. So we can potentially make the judgement that for every person who leaves an organisation there may be 3 or 4 staff members considering it. So a significant number of people could be quiet quitting to some degree.
Therefore organisations potentially have a quiet quitting iceberg – the danger hidden under the surface and almost impossible to assess.
How do you measure quiet quitting and the wider problem?
While I say that getting evidence of individual quiet quitting is very difficult at a strategic level, an aggregate picture with reasonable accuracy can be obtained using employee engagement data. This data groups employees into three populations:
- The engaged – people who are giving their best.
- The not engaged – people doing enough to get by or sometimes giving their best depending how they feel.
- The disengaged – people actively avoiding contributing to the organisation.
It’s unlikely that your engaged people will want to leave because, to be classified as engaged, they will have given feedback confirming they are having a positive experience, and their work is consistently good. Your quiet quitters are within the ‘not engaged’ or potentially even the ‘disengaged’ groups depending on how disaffected they are. The ‘disengaged’ are much easier to spot than the ‘not engaged’ because there are often weak elements within their performance. Whereas the ‘not engaged’ can be performing satisfactorily but just not giving their best – witholding their ‘discretionary effort’.
Quiet quitters are embedded in these ‘not engaged’ and ‘disengaged’ groups – and potentially in large numbers. Data from Gallup’s workplace engagement survey 2022 shows levels of employee engagement. This is the percentage of employees giving their best. In most European countries it’s under 25%, with the UK at a dismal 9%. In the USA and Canada, employee engagement levels are a more respectable 33%. The differential between the US and Canada, Europe in general and the UK is significant – why this is happening is a bigger question for another article.
This means that in the UK, on average, 91% of employees are either ‘not engaged’ or ‘disengaged’ so not giving their best and therefore could be quiet quitters – this is horrifying! But even in the US and Canada, with a 33% engagement rate, it still means a potential quiet quitter population of up to 67%.
Can we identify who is quiet quitting?
We can easily identify those who have handed in their notice and left. Using the survey feedback quoted above we can get a figure for the percentage of potential leavers, in other words, those who might move for a better job.
However, it’s unlikely that someone will share that they are a quiet quitter, even on an anonymous survey. So it is extremely difficult to identify not engaged or disengaged employees who are mentally clocking off.
If somebody has been properly recruited to do the job then they should be able to do it on a day-to-day basis without any significant effort. We would anticipate that they have the ability to give additional effort for situations when required. This reserve of effort is activated when the individual wants to put in extra effort – so it’s known as ‘discretionary effort’ – when they go that extra mile.
If people are applying enough effort to do the job competently then their performance management feedback will be satisfactory. The system will only identify a reduction in performance against previous levels, it can’t identify effort that is being withheld if it has not been delivered before.
Also, assuming that an organisation has recruited reasonably intelligent people, if they are planning to leave they know they will require a reference. To ensure that this reference is positive they will make sure they only reduce the effort to the point where their performance is still ‘seen’ as positive to get that reference. In other words, they will disguise their quiet quitting.
Quiet quitters aren’t your only problem
So when someone in the workplace is quiet quitting, they have decided to reduce their effort level, or withhold additional effort, rather than leave immediately. But in most cases it’s likely they’re preparing to leave as soon as they can.
While the quiet quitters lurk within the ‘not engaged’ and ‘disengaged. There are others who are already on a reduced effort level and content to stay put in the organisation. These pose a much bigger problem.
At least you know there is a chance that the quiet quitters will eventually leave so you can replace them, but the others are with you long term, and you can’t identify them individually. This challenge is not a new one, it’s been around for years, but in many countries, it’s getting worse. Gallup reports that potentially 70% of US workers could be quiet quitters. And employee engagement data suggests that up to 70% of employees are just doing the job to get by and not giving their best. The problem is that you don’t know who in the 70% is a quiet quitter or a long-term low performance hanger on.
Risk of lost profit
For those who do put in more effort research by employee engagement group Engage for Success suggests that this additional ‘discretionary effort’ could be in the region of 30% more, which up to 60% of people could be giving. Think of how much easier achieving success would be if you were getting that additional “discretionary” effort.
But also think about how much performance and profit the organisation is missing out on when it’s not given. That’s what I call the ‘risk of lost profit’, the profit you are losing because this problem has not been addressed. That could add 10 to 15% to the bottom line. Investors might take a dim view if they knew you were missing out on this potential additional profit because you had failed to put in place simple leadership steps which would deliver that.
Recession? The quiet quitting time bomb
In light of current world turmoil and a feeling that we’re going from crisis to crisis, much has been said that, as a result of potential recessions and slow economic growth, people may think twice before leaving a job. However, there are two considerations here as suggested by McKinsey & Company. Firstly, despite this, nearly 70% of people are currently prepared to leave a job regardless so a recession potentially isn’t a significant threat to departure. And secondly, for people where it’s an issue, they’ll simply become quiet quitters.
The impact of a recession might well be to reduce the current level of departures but that reduction will be balanced within organisations by an increased level of quiet quitting.
Also too often we look at the symptoms of the problem, not the causes. It’s essential that we address the causes so that we don’t suffer from either an increased level of departures or the hidden time bomb of quiet quitting.
How to beat quiet quitting
We’ve established that the majority of organisations globally will not have more than 30% of engaged people in the workforce, and in Europe even less. The global average being 21%. But even if 50% of employees are engaged, it obviously means 50% aren’t. That’s definitely not a recipe for success.
And while there is clearly a financial imperative in getting everyone to want to give their best, which investors are obviously also interested in, there’s also a moral and ethical imperative.
But what’s possible if you put the right actions in place to address the problem ? What can be achieved? As an example, the WD-40 company, the provider of the blue and yellow oil aerosol has a 93% employee engagement rate. This is one clear reason why it is expanding and profitable year after year, even during the pandemic. How? By leaders building trust, inspiring people via simple day-to-day actions – by having coaches and mentors, not bosses, by mistakes not attaching blame but seen as ‘learning moments’, by people understanding the bigger picture and believing in the company’s purpose and vision. Find out how CEO Garry Ridge achieved it.
Because quiet quitting is so difficult to identify at an individual level, how can you do anything about it? The same applies to the wider ‘not engaged’ group of which quiet quitters are a part, overall maybe 70% of employees.
What we do know is that if leaders take certain day-to-day actions, the likelihood is that people in their teams will not quiet quit, will become engaged and are likely to give their best, like the employees at WD-40.
So, taking the effort to identify who is quiet quitting is effectively a waste of resources when the more impactful solution is to create an environment across the organisation where nobody feels like quiet quitting and everybody is engaged and wanting to give their best.
What are the critical actions to take?
Individual leader actions – these are actions that every leader, from the first line of management to C-Suite & senior executives, can take to resolve this challenge and deliver success. There are three steps which build on each other to achieve this.
- Build a firm foundation of task management skills.
- Get the best from everyone.
- Focus that best work on what delivers success.
1. Firm foundation of task management
Ensuring that every leader has a firm foundation of development in critical task management skills. For example, prioritisation, time management, delegation, communication and giving feedback. Evidence would suggest that up to 70% of line managers have not received formal development in these critical skills. Have you? In the case of delegation, a simple 15-minute introduction to the topic has been shown to give back most line managers an extra half day a week. It is this firm foundation which enables effective control of the task agenda which then allows that extra time for leaders to implement the next step.
2. Get the best from everyone
Leaders should focus on the actions which they are already doing which deliver the highest return on investment (ROI) for their effort. For example, asking people for ideas, developing them, building trust, empowering them, explaining how their work contributes to organisational success, leading by example, understanding that people make genuine mistakes, and giving regular feedback. Plus acting with integrity and building trust. These are steps which are proven to encourage significant extra effort from employees. All leaders will have experienced these actions over their careers, so they aren’t new to them, they just need to utilise them better to get more effort from employees.
Working with audiences across the globe over 15 years there is a consistent list of 11 to 12 actions which are likely to get the best from people at any level, in any organisation, doing any job, anywhere in the world. This is a consolidation of feedback from thousands of leaders over that time about what specific actions by their boss which made them want to increase effort by significant levels. These figures show the significant potential increases in effort these actions can deliver. For example, building trust and showing you care (25%), developing people (38%), and giving regular fair feedback (39%). The real impact of these actions is also confirmed by Gallup: “the best habit to develop for successful managers is having one meaningful conversation per week with each team member – 15-30 minutes.”
To be honest, if you can’t do these simple actions to get the best from your people then you shouldn’t be in a leadership role.
It’s worth noting that the evidence suggests that an employee’s decision to give high performance is 60% rational and 40% emotional. So it’s not just about having a good plan it’s about that plan resonating with the employee and in particular answering the ‘what’s in it for me’ question. The critical point to note is that 80% of the emotional element to give their best is determined by the day-to-day behaviour of the individual’s boss – so those simple actions that build trust are vital.
Around 70% of the bosses actions on the list which encourage people to give their best are related not to the task but to the emotional relationship between the individual and their boss. The lesson is simple, telling people to do the job gets the job done, but inspiring people to do the job gets more than the job done – much more.
3. Focus onto what delivers success
A team can work very hard doing something which adds no significant benefit to the organisation because it’s not aligned with strategic objectives. Estimates say that this may be up to 20% of work done at an operational level in most organisations. So to get maximum ROI from employees giving their best, that best must focus and align onto actions that deliver the strategic objectives.
This is about making sure that everybody in the organisation understands the bigger picture so that they can measure what they’re doing and change the plan to maintain that alignment if needed. Within a wider context this will also inherently start to break down silos across the organisation – everyone understanding the same big picture.
The breaking down of silos and the creation of one organisation should be the goal of all organisations to optimise performance. This was our fundamental goal during the creation of the global bank UBS when I was the global head of leadership. Success in achieving this delivered significant improvements in performance and profitability, and together with entrepreneurial leadership is one of the reasons why it is now a Harvard case study – on aligning and integrating into one seamless organisation “One UBS”.
To beat quiet quitting across the organisation there also has to be an element of strategic support as well as action within every team. This creates a positive culture to build momentum behind the transformation.
There are two critical components:
Optimising hybrid working
30% of employees benefit from hybrid working. There is overwhelming evidence that the vast majority of employees want to have this opportunity where possible. Where it is practical but not allowed or enabled quiet quitting is likely to be significant, as potentially could be departures.
But there have been very varied and somewhat confusing responses from employers on this issue – everyone in the office, no one in the office, in the office sometimes. This is an area which is currently being tested as employees and organisations discover what is optimal to get the best for both staff and the business. The optimisation of hybrid working can be a significant factor in the prevention of quiet quitting.
Where hybrid working is optimised, there are benefits in work performance, particularly in terms of high-concentration individual work and employee wellness. Equally, when hybrid working is not effectively supported by leaders it leads to stress and a decline in work quality.
While organisational leadership may wish to set hybrid working parameters in general terms, these should be general operating principles. If they turn into enforced measures the result is likely to be ineffective and negatively impact employees. It might lead to more quiet quitting. Quiet quitting is even harder to notice within a remote working setting, so emphasises the need for leaders to inspire and build trust so this doesn’t happen.
The optimisation of hybrid working needs to balance the needs of staff, their circumstances, and the type of work they do. For example, two individuals doing exactly the same job could have vastly different personal circumstances and needs which need to be catered for. The single, less experienced young employee who wants to get promoted will potentially choose to be in the office more than an older, more experienced employee who is also now a parent – they may want and need to be at home more. Also, we need to consider the level of individual versus team working – and the need for the team to meet to achieve its objectives and maintain team spirit. Leaders also need to think about ongoing development and organisational culture, processes, and health and safety.
Quiet quitting is a time bomb that can be quickly defused
As has been said the downside and dangers of quiet quitting are that you can’t identify who’s doing it. But the upside is that through simple actions you can create an environment in which it’s unlikely to happen. One where disengaged employees become engaged, resulting in all the positive impacts this has for the organisation and employees – better performance and a great place to work. Also we know that small simple actions make a real difference. As an example weekly conversations with team members as individuals, and a team, are an easy and impactful place to start.
The principles and actions proposed here are potentially likely to deliver benefits in just weeks and, if implemented effectively, will build momentum quickly. This will not only reduce potential for quiet quitting but also create an environment where virtually any challenge which appears for the organisation can be swiftly addressed dealt by leaders with inspired employees giving their best.
Now that’s the kind of place we all want to work. So not only does it deliver what needs to be done but also boosts retention to keep the best people and make them proactive brand ambassadors.
So, in summary, what are the key elements to beat quiet quitting?
Four key elements steps to beat quiet quitting
- All leaders must:
- Have a firm foundation of task management skills.
- Inspire their people to give their best via simple day to day actions that build trust and capability.
- Focus and align that best onto what delivers strategic success.
- Senior leaders and key influencers must proactively, visibly, lead by example and support implementation in partnership with HR.