Over the past year, a trend began emerging in the workplace: quiet quitting. Opposed to the actual idea of quitting your job itself, quiet quitting refers to doing just the bare minimum required of your job role without putting in extra effort. This extra effort could range from reaching out to other colleagues, being active in meetings or asking for additional work. For the person concerned, they will just do what their role requires and nothing more. The trend is a combination of factors; partly a reaction to the changes in attitudes towards work brought on by the pandemic, and partly a reaction and rejection of the rise of 'hustle culture' in the 2010s.
As with these polarising trends, there are both strengths and weaknesses to quiet quitting. Setting limits for yourself and training how to shut off work mode when the working day ends can help prevent unnecessary stress and burnout. However, the passivity that comes is also likely to reflect negatively, particularly if the quiet quitter adopts it into interactions with colleagues or customers. This kind of passivity may indicate the person is having a negative experience in their work life; something that their employer should want to remedy. So what does quiet quitting say about experience, and where does the decision to quiet quit come from?
What is the Science?
In an article by Harvard Business Review, the author points out research conducted by the father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman. In a famous piece of research, Seligman devised the theory of learned helplessness whilst conducting challenging experiments on dogs. The dogs he experimented on were attached to an electrified platform that would mildly shock their hind legs. Realising they couldn't escape this situation due to the restraints he attached them to, the dogs eventually stopped trying and just accepted the situation. They learned they were helpless. The dogs continued to do nothing even when they were later no longer attached to the platform. Due to their prior experiences, they had accepted their situation and had to be re-taught that they could now escape. Despite enabling them to escape, they had learned to be helpless and remained that way until shown otherwise.
Quite rightly, this research would never be approved today but it gave rise to the idea that when faced with something considered out of our control, there is a tendency to be passive of the situation. Moreover, as the Harvard article goes on to points out, recent research has shown that this passivity is a hardwired approach rather than learned, meaning we may be biologically more inclined to passivity when we feel no control over a continuously difficult situation or series of events. Too much exposure to the idea that we're not in control of something and we're likely to be ground down.
Where does Experience Come in?
What struck whilst reading the Harvard Business School article was the discussion around work stresses and feelings of no control. It is easy to see how these feelings can arise in a workplace, from being given tasks you weren't expecting, to tackling a day of low motivation where the work keeps coming in. This can feel all the more compounded when its a job you've become disengaged from but can afford to lose. You can begin to see why people would start quiet quitting, however, there is more to it. A general sense of no control can be linked with deep psychological feelings, such as autonomy, or accomplishment at discovering a sense of purpose:
If someone doesn't see a purpose in their work, they may feel they have a deep loss of control over their ability to live up to how they once saw themselves.
If someone doesn't feel a sense of power in their role, they will likewise feel like they've lost control.
If we resonate with the above, it could quickly lead to the more negative traits of quiet quitting. It's clear to say that this form of quiet quitting equates to a negative employee experience. Feeling shackled to our loss of control, in an environment we can't leave, we won't confront the stimuli; instead we will contribute the bare minimum to stop ourselves feeling overwhelmed. We've seen in the great resignation that many people were willing to quit their jobs in search of something better. Often cited reasons were employees looking for better work benefits. It therefore makes sense that for those who would prefer to leave their jobs but can't find or don't have time to find alternatives they quietly quit instead. They learn to be passive and just accept their bad work situation and only contribute the minimally accepted level.
Some of these feelings we mention can be tackled head on by organisations through reaching out to their employees. Simple check-ins to ask how an employee is may go a long way to determining their feelings and, by extension, potential to quietly quit. If someone doesn't fully find purpose in their role, it may go a long way to rejuvenate it by discussing how they're feeling and attempting to align their work with those values. In addition, providing ownership over their role can contribute greatly to a feeling of autonomy. In a previous article, we pointed out the TED talk by Will Guidara, and his assertion that 'creative autonomy' produced a happier staff team. It makes sense, employees were seeing how their contributions were affecting the running of the business and the experiences it gave to their customers. This is the autonomy we mention above. Employees don't want to control the goings on in the business, but do want to have the power to affect the business and its outcomes for the better. Moreover, by enabling employees to provide memorable experiences to customers, we're encouraging that sense of purpose and value that is very much needed for the quiet quitter.
Many of the consequences that arise from quiet quitting happen because organisations either don't understand, don't have the means to understand, or haven't acted upon the feelings expressed by their employees. If we do not understand that our employees are feeling disengaged or dissatisfied, we cannot manage/improve the means by which to overcome these sensations. If we cannot address and resolve the negative experiences being encountered by our employees, quiet quitting seems a natural next step for them. Therefore we must ensure we know what people feel and why they feel that way, and can do so via the implementation of XLAs.
XLAs ensure the regular monitoring and management of employee experience. Regular is the key word here. Whilst writing this article, more terms for workplace phenomena have arisen, such as 'quiet hiring' and 'rage applying'. As many people attribute these terms and attitudes with the sometimes considered continuing, sometimes waning, great resignation, it has become vital to understand these feelings, where they arise from, and how organisations might work with them. Start your journey to understand the benefits of XLAs for your business with a complimentary webinar from Bright Horse. Hope to see you soon.
Molla, R., (2023). Quiet hiring and the endless quest to coin terms about work. Vox. Available from: https://www.vox.com/recode/23548422/quiet-quitting-hiring-great-resignation-words-about-work
Rock, D. and Dixit, J., (2023). Are Our Brains Wired to Quiet Quit? Harvard Business Review. Available from: https://hbr.org/2023/01/are-our-brains-wired-to-quiet-quit
TED, (2022). The Secret Ingredients of Great Hospitality | Will Guidara | TED. YouTube. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwcyXcOpWVs