empty office

Why We Are (Still) Talking About Quiet Quitting

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

First it was the “great resignation.” Now it is “quiet quitting.” From TikTok to NPR, the notion of workers setting boundaries—doing the work that they are paid for and expecting to be paid for the work they do—has captivated our collective imagination. Why? What about this workplace trend / cultural phenomenon has gotten us so worked up?

There are several aspects of quiet quitting that keep us coming back for more:

  1. The Promise. For many workers and professionals, the idea of setting boundaries and asserting power in the workplace is exciting, tantalizing, hopeful. Even pre-pandemic, many individuals felt overwhelmed, overworked, and under-appreciated. My clients routinely expressed fear that if they said no, asked for help, or took time off they would be penalized, would not advance or might even be fired. The exhaustion and burnout was compounded when COVID 19 hit, both for essential workers who were required to continue to go to work in person and for those who were able to work from home but who saw a complete collapse of work-life boundaries. Emerging from the pandemic and witnessing other people dialing back their work and hearing folks talk about employees’ right to be paid commensurate with their value offers hope to burnt-out employees. Maybe things will get better.
  2. The Peril. The flip side of the excitement about workers setting boundaries is a fear that employees will generally check out and the workplace will fall apart. The notion of working less runs counter to a traditional Puritan / capitalistic work ethic, which is very alarming to folks who believe in and have benefited from the current system. What about taking pride in your work? What about being grateful to have a job? In addition, there is a real concern about what might happen if there were a widespread reduction in overall effort and its resulting potential for reduced productivity, innovation and quality, declining “citizenship behaviors” and overall morale. In addition, the underlying assumption behind at least some of the rhetoric around quiet quitting seems to undermine the possibility that someone might work hard because I am excited and motivated by my work, or that I derive satisfaction from learning and accomplishing, or from being part of a team. While it is true that work won’t love you back, many of us are not ready to give up on the promise of fulfilling work that is intrinsically rewarding. One underlying premise of quiet quitting is that it reduces work to a purely economic exchange. This is a cause for concern.
  3. The Polarization. Media attention is drawn to controversy, and the notion of quiet quitting triggers some very heated responses. Some see a brave assertion of boundaries and a rebalancing of the employee-employer relationship that had previously been heavily weighted in favor of the employer. To others, it is just another example of an entitled, whiny workforce who should be grateful to have a job and who need to pay their dues. Pitting the older generation against the younger generation, the workers against the bosses, makes for inflammatory headlines. All of this is oversimplification.
  4. The Puzzle. The best reason to continue our conversation about quiet quitting is to seek deeper understanding. This moment raises a lot of questions and complexity for us to explore and debate. Despite all the coverage, quiet quitting is still very poorly understood. Let’s start with its name. As some have noted, much like the so-called great resignation (which was not so much a mass quitting but instead more of a reshuffle where people left one job to take a better job), quiet quitting is not actually quitting and it may not be unspoken. It’s actually not just one thing, and we are not even certain how widespread a phenomenon it is. Millions of views on TikTok is not the same as millions of people actually doing it. Instead, we do see data indicating a slight downturn in employee engagement, and there is anecdotal evidence that some folks are deliberately dialing back their hours and effort. Much is not yet known, which means that this so-called trend is ripe for lots of experts (including me) to weigh in and theorize as to its cause, its meaning, and what it portends. Bring on the podcasts, radio call-ins, and morning show segments.

Really, it’s too soon to know what it all means. What we need to do, going forward, is to get curious and try to understand before we judge or prognosticate. This requires gathering data and asking some hard questions about causes and outcomes, about the role of work in our lives and the value of work in our economy. That is worth continuing to talk about.