What a beautiful alliteration, that keeps showing up on my doorstep, more and more often nowadays. It seems that after surviving 2020, 2021, 2022 with it’s merciless waves of the great resignation, in 2023 even quitting can’t be great anymore. We just quietly shrivel up and mourn our past motivation. I wrote about my own experience back in 2020 (before it was a thing) and in my own allegorical way, even back then, considered it a leadership issue. Spoiler, I will get back to that later.
Well, there are two main problems I think.
1st is a communication problem:
Since cognitive psychologists put pen to paper, we know, that we, as individuals, only perceive of the world, what we want to. Our perception process has a filter installed somewhere, where we only see our side of reality. Others have their own versions of reality. In computer terms, we have an input, a process and an output. Somewhere between the input and output there is a filter, which only allows a specific type or information to enter or be processed. This is on the one hand bad news, because we have to operate on limited information. On the other hand, we know, the brain cares little about facts. Since Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking fast and slow”, we know we are all biased towards our own beliefs. In this case, the less information we have, the more eager our brain is to construct a good story, that fits the information we have into a coherent pattern. So if I don’t see my colleagues working, because I see them only once a week (thank you hybrid work) and that time we spend chatting and catching up, then I can tell myself with the highest level of confidence, that none of my colleagues are working. So then why should I? Hello quiet quitting.
As presented in the book, the confidence we have in our own beliefs depends mostly on the quality and coherence of the story that we can tell, based on what we see. Even if what we see is very limited. More so, we quite often sabotage ourselves in getting more information, because if we do that, the brain has to start working, and we also know, our analytical brain is extremely lazy. So why do I say, that this is a communication problem? Because we don’t go after the information that is required to make a fact based decision. And to get there, first we need to get into a deep dialogue with ourselves. Why am I telling myself this story? Why is it more comfortable living based on fiction, than to see the truth? Where am I cutting corners, to convince myself of things that I know are (highly likely) not true? Second, we need to get into dialogue with our environment. In this case I mean your colleagues, peers and leaders. This is an excellent forum to gather facts. Give and receive feedback, that we then force our brain upon considering. Suddenly, if I find out from a colleague, that he is mourning the loss of a parent, I will see him less of a lazy a**hole, and maybe pull a little harder on my side, to take some load off of his shoulder. What if I do find out, that he is a lazy a**hole? No problem, I can then go and have a constructive conversation with my leader and come to fact based decisions we need to take. And this brings me to the second part of the problem.
2nd is a leadership problem:
I believe, quiet quitting is the long term health effect of irresponsible (indifferent?) leadership. In the past years of incredible prosperity, we as leaders, could get off calling our employees stars and rocks and unicorns. Instead of addressing the problem, we just gave it a cute name that sounds good. No problem whatsoever if he’s inefficient, make a paperweight out of him. We can afford it! Still better then having to actually develop your employees, or having uncomfortable discussions. But… Times turn, economies turn and we are forced to take decisions we are not comfortable taking. If you are one of the lucky ones, who work for companies who have no issues with mass layoffs, you’re off the hook. If not, well, you have to catch up on yourself, and do the work you failed to do for years. We all know, that one rotten egg can spoil the whole bunch. So no one should be surprised, that sooner than later people realise, being paperweight is not that bad after all. And the bigger question any leader has to ask themselves is: am I setting an example in problem solving, or am I just joining in the choir, shrugging with helplessness? I mean what do we expect, if we are unable to set a standard?
And the last problem I see, is regarding the approach people are taking in addressing the issue of quiet quitting. And here, the root cause is, again, miscommunication. More precisely, the lack of open and honest communication, that you can only then achieve if the people trust you. I know there is a discrepancy, because leaders see quiet quitters as depressed, disconnected, hopeless/helpless people. Just google “quiet quitting” and see what images you get. This again, gives their brains the opportunity to construct whatever story that confirms their beliefs. They try to intimidate, feed on fear, etc… On the other side of the story, quiet quitters are hopping on their surfboard, riding off into the sunset.
You associated quiet quitting with a bad feeling? Oh, no, no, no….. It’s very enjoyable. It’s renting a villa in Mallorca, visiting your friends in South Africa, riding your bike around town at night and sleeping all day. It’s much fun!
Now put it all together:
— not working according to standard has no consequences
— physical presence (control) is not the norm anymore
— there is a disconnect between the employees and company culture (through lack of constructive communication with leadership)
and you can start seeing the contour of the monster you created. Why do you think bringing people back to the office is that hard? You think an indoor playground and two more foosball tables will compensate for a sailboat or a clear water beach in the tropics? Don’t think so.
In this case too, as in all cases, freedom comes at great cost. While freedom was granted through a global pandemic, trust was not implicitly part of the package. Where organisations could let go of control and trust their employees, work ethics developed, where taking advantage of each other is off limits. Go off surfing, but have it done by the end of the day.
Leaders are the number one link, to keeping the employees engaged with the organisation. You cannot do this with emails, policy changes, not even with 1:1-s. You need to look at the individual, the group and the problem, through everyone’s filter. Have as many as possible group interactions, where everyone has a say, where all are allowed to put their problems on the table. You might just realise, that they are all well constructed stories, with little or no facts to support them.