Can Leaders Stop “Quiet Quitting”?

It’s a new term for a very old problem—low morale. But the workplace is different now, and improving engagement requires new approaches.

TikTok trends tend not to last much longer than a lunch hour, but “quiet quitting” appears to have legs. Late last month, various news articles began seizing on posts where young workers expressed exasperation with their work life and proclaimed that they were content with doing the bare minimum for their employer: “Not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond,” as one TikTok user put it.

Perhaps the conversation around “quiet quitting” has gone on for so long because it’s not really a new phenomenon. The concept of looking at your workload and going “nah” to a lot of it is as old as work itself. The tedium of the office—and office culture—has been commemorated in works like Herman Melville’s 1853 short story Bartleby, the Scrivener, in which an office drudge softly intones, “I would prefer not to.” As a gen-Xer, I spent the early 90s practically marinating in contempt for anything that resembled professional ambition or ladder-climbing. We had bigger things on our minds, or thought we did, and withdrawing in disgust, as a popular song and movie put it at the time, was not the same as apathy.

Lack of motivation is a reaction to the actions of the manager.

The difference this time, though, is that we’re in a moment of more acute awareness of employee wellness, and leaders are increasingly recognizing their role in the culture they create—especially as workers are more willing to move on. As leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman point out in a recent Harvard Business Review article, employees’ instinct toward doing the bare minimum is often a function of the culture they see around them. Quiet quitting, they write, “comes from feeling undervalued and unappreciated … Employees’ lack of motivation was a reaction to the actions of the manager.”

Their research backs up the argument. Looking at 13,000 employee assessments of their leaders, they found that a willingness “to go the extra mile” correlates to how well they rate their manager. Sixty-two percent of employees who rate their bosses in the 90th percentile or above are willing to do more for their organizations; only 20 percent of those who give their bosses the lowest ratings say they will. 

A caveat: Across the board, what Zenger and Folkman classify as “quiet quitting” isn’t as pervasive as some business-section trend pieces make it out to be. Even among the employees who are the most sour toward their managers, only 14 percent are quiet quitters. For the most part, people are engaged with their work, or going that proverbial extra mile. But it depends on how the terms are described and who you ask: Gallup, for instance, recently argued that half the U.S. workforce qualified as “quiet quitters,” pointing to a growth in actively disengaged employees, particularly among younger workers.

Regardless, the phenomenon is common enough, and rooted clearly enough in leaders’ own actions, that it’s worth giving the matter attention. Gallup prescribes strengthening a culture of accountability, but stresses the importance of having conversations with employees about their concerns—disengagement, after all, is a trickle-down phenomenon. Similarly, Zenger and Folkman’s chief recommendation is trust-building—trust, they write, is the key distinction between an engaged and disengaged employees. Cultivating positive relationships, behaving consistently, and demonstrating your own expertise, they say, go a long way towards addressing a “quiet quitting” problem. 

Which makes sense. If you want your people to go the extra mile, after all, you have to do it too.

Is “quiet quitting” a concern at your association? Share your experiences in the comments.

(mediaphotos/iStock/Getty Images)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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