Jill Geisler: Are you creating quiet quitters or preventing them?

October 12, 2022 11:24 pm

There’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen the term quiet quitting, which blossomed after its recent debut on social media. There’s an even greater chance you have a quiet quitter on your team — or someone about to take on that identity,

Quiet quitters aren’t necessarily headed for the exits, and they aren’t trying to sabotage your business. Instead, these employees are performing just the basics of their job descriptions. They show up on time and get the job done, but they’re no longer eager to go the extra mile. They’ve come to believe that going above and beyond is neither rewarding nor healthy.

The Gallup organization has been measuring employee engagement for years and believes that at least 50% of the U.S. workforce may now be quiet quitters. It recently reported that the percentage of workers who are actively disengaged has increased in the past year:

“The overall decline was especially related to clarity of expectations, opportunities to learn and grow, feeling cared about and a connection to the organization’s mission or purpose — signaling a growing disconnect between employees and their employers.”

What’s behind the disconnect?

Several issues. First, the pandemic caused many people to reassess their lives. Grief, illness, fear and stress led to the kind of reckoning that people sometimes do after they retire, when they say things like, “I wish I had been less willing to move whenever my employer wanted to transfer me.” Or “I wish I hadn’t missed so many important events in my kids’ lives because I was at work.”

There are concrete concerns: Staff reductions, hiring freezes, pay or benefit cuts and backlash in organizations that are deploying electronic tracking to tightly monitor their workers, right down to each keystroke. (If you haven’t listened to The New York Times’ podcast, “The rise of workplace surveillance,” do so.)

It could also be the opposite of oppressive scrutiny: Employees getting too little attention from their managers, only hearing from them when something goes wrong or if the boss wants to add to their task list.

Spotting a potential quiet quitter

For years, I’ve told managers that the most dangerous words they can hear from an employee are these: “Just tell me what you want.” It’s likely to mean they’ve given up offering ideas and taking initiative, and that they won’t come up with a new, creative approach or take a risk. It means if something goes wrong, the blame can fall to you because they were simply doing what they were told.

It can mean you’ve created — or failed to prevent — a quiet quitter.

What can managers do?

If you’re a good manager, you’re concerned about the quiet-quitting phenomenon. You understand it’s not some mean-spirited payback; it’s self-care. You understand that when managers are invested in their team members (and show it), they can prevent the problem rather than causing or contributing to it.

Start by looking at the world through the eyes of staff. Here are some questions they may be asking themselves:

  • Does my manager care about me as a person, not just as a producer?
  • Does my work feel like it matters?
  • Are my extra efforts to solve problems, help others or fill gaps visible to my manager?
  • Is going above the call of duty appreciated or just expected?
  • Does the extra effort I put forth backfire in the long run, because it masks problems related to staffing, training, maintenance or planning?
  • Are the systems in our organization efficient, humane and fair, or are they contributing to staff burnout?

Every one of us keeps a mental ledger about our work life. We keep track of the times we’ve done far more than was expected, did special favors for people, worked when tired or sick, or held our tongue when we could have complained. Wise managers try their best to gain insights into those ledgers, so they can keep people from feeling they are giving more than they are getting in return. Here are seven ways they can  do that.

1. Keep in regular contact with employees. This is especially important in remote or hybrid situations. Employees can easily feel ignored, devalued and dismissed. Time with you is more valuable than you might think.

2. Provide meaningful feedback, especially the positive. Don’t be the manager who thinks people shouldn’t be praised for doing what they’re supposed to do. People deserve to feel appreciated.

3. Listen. Let people know their voices matter. Be empathetic and responsive.

4. Remove obstacles. Whether it’s interpersonal conflicts or unreliable equipment, don’t let festering issues cause people to feel their work is needlessly difficult.

5. Review systems. Just because something seemed a smart idea years ago doesn’t mean it’s valid today. Flaws in hiring, promotions, evaluations, compensation, workflow, job titles, assignments, teams or communication can cause people to work with a sense of resignation instead of engagement.

6. Lobby for change. Managers are often caught in the middle. Policies are sometimes imposed from above with little input from the front lines. Supervisors are expected to enact and enforce them. If you know in your heart that a policy is problematic, tell your leaders respectfully but clearly about the unintended consequences it is causing.

7. Don’t expect the staff to work like their supervisors. As a manager, you often stay on the job until the work is done, starting early and staying late. Or you bring the work home with you. You may tell people they can contact you any time, day or night. It can become such a way of life for you that you begin to see it as a workplace norm and feel everyone should work the same way. That’s just not reasonable.

Leaders aren’t immune

Finally, be aware that leaders also can feel overtaxed and underappreciated. When that happens, they, too, can shift to the quiet quitting side. So, in addition to taking good care of your team, be sure to take care of yourself as well.


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