Employees Might Be Quietly Quitting, But Who’s to Blame?

There’s certainly a lot of hype around it currently, but I maintain that quiet quitting is no new issue - even though I’ve never seen anyone seem to care the least bit about it until just recently! With hopes that you’re tracking with me on the importance of EARNING engagement from the 50% of team members who tend to be neither actively engaged or actively disengaged - the ones now being accused of quietly quitting - we need to come to terms with the fact that the Howard Jones song from the 80s just isn’t the case here… Someone needs to accept the blame, or at least the responsibility for righting the ship and getting those oars into the water!

As I dug into this quiet quitting idea to begin putting some thoughts together, I found an article from the Harvard Business Review that was very pointed in who really was to blame, contrary to what Mr. Jones may have suggested… The article opened like this:

“Every employee, every workday, makes a decision: Are they only willing to do the minimum work necessary to keep their job? Or are they willing to put more of their energy and effort into their work?”

Remember the statistic I shared previously about increased discretionary effort and how that impacted individual productivity? I’ve seen far too many supervisors and managers over the years pounding their fists on their desks as they raised all kinds of cane about those team members who just weren’t doing as much as they were capable of. To that end, I’ve seen more than a few managers and business owners make that same kind of fuss about their supervisors…

If I’ve shared this once, I’ve shared it a thousand times: people don’t shy away from things because of difficulty or low pay. I have a lifelong friend whose entire career, beginning as a volunteer and riding his bicycle to the fire station at age 14, has been focused on helping others while putting himself in harm's way. Individuals in all walks of life dedicate themselves to the things they’re bought into. And if our team members aren’t buying in at a level where they’re willing to expend that discretionary effort, is it really their fault?

I remember a conversation from nearly a decade ago like it was yesterday… My boss, the facility human resource manager with fancy credentials and an MBA framed proudly on the wall behind his desk, was on a tirade about some of the supervisors he and I were working with not doing some basic things that were expected of them. On the credenza just below his framed MBA and fancy credential, were two books by John Maxwell that I had loaned him but he just hadn’t had the time to crack open. After he droned on for a while, I interrupted to share something I had read from John in each of those books, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” I went on to state that he was in a role that required leadership and therefore the very things he was whining about were his fault. I won’t pretend like that galvanized our friendship; he actually wasn’t all that fond of my comment… But that didn’t mean I was wrong!

As I’ve studied this quiet quitting thing, I’ve found more than a few references to “quiet firing” as well. That’s an even bigger crock of crap, and it ties right back to folks in supervisory and management roles refusing to accept the responsibility of authentically leading their teams.

Moving forward here, we’ll work through some things that are all too commonly blamed for those folks choosing to quietly quit and what a leader can do to earn their buy-in. Then we’ll get specific about how we can even tailor our approach to each individual team member!

Burnout: Are They Tired or Just Not Inspired?

After talking with my mom about who really is to blame for quiet quitting, she shared something she had just seen on Dr. Phil where he suggested that quiet quitting was a societal issue largely caused by lack of initiative on the employees’ part. I usually attempt to be fairly mild and respectful with my language when talking with her but I slipped a little with my response to that and immediately said Dr. Phil was full of shit… I quickly regained composure and qualified my abrupt statement by explaining that I certainly don’t excuse a lack of initiative, but I’m still absolutely convinced that this is far more about ineffective leadership than some sudden scourge taking over our country. After all, making a new name for it didn’t make it a new issue…

As I’ve sifted through resources, attempting to understand all the hype that’s suddenly focusing on this issue, one of the things I’ve seen referenced over and over has been burnout. Make no mistake here, I know firsthand what that feels like! In my last full time role, I was averaging 50 hours a week for my employer and at least that much in our business. Truth be told, I can’t remember a time in the last two decades where I’ve logged less than 60 hours a week between a day job and anything I had going on the side to pay the bills. But the only time I can point to where I truly felt burnt out was during those last several months in that full time role.

I could list several things that likely factored into that; I was tied to a desk far too much and not working out, I had entered my forties, the full time role requiring significant attention to detail was sucking the life right out of me (something we’ll circle back to soon), and a empty feeling of not seeing where the work I was doing in the full time role was making a lasting impact on the company’s culture. Quite honestly, I’m sure all of those things contributed to some degree… But looking back, one had a far greater impact than everything else combined!

One of the resources I found from a group called BioMedCentral cited a study on the Impact of long working hours on health based on observations in China with regards to health effects the participants of the study were seeing over the long haul. OK, fair enough… While I’ve not been to China, I would expect the working conditions to be significantly worse than what the majority in our great nation are accustomed to. Another article I found from a large leadership training company that I’m licensed with called Development Dimensions International was called 10 Ways to Reduce Workplace Stress. Like the BMC study, the DDI article offered some valid ideas but neither directly tied their issues back to the one thing we as leaders can truly control - even if we’re willing to…

I’ll say it once more here for anyone who may have been distracted by murmuring in the back… People do not choose their profession based solely on how difficult it is or the wage it pays them. I’ve known far too many people who volunteer as paramedics and firefighters, and hundreds (if not thousands) who risk their lives on a daily basis professionally for a fraction of what they could earn in the private section - and all of them have also worked long hours!

When considering the idea of burnout, especially when relating it to quiet quitters, I’m 100% convinced that it’s due to being uninspired rather than just plain tired… Call me naive if you want, but I still hold the opinion that the vast majority of Americans take significant pride in their work ethic. This is where I believe that everything truly does rise and fall on leadership! When we draw meaning and purpose from what we do, there will be very few obstacles that stand in our way. But when we’re not fulfilled through those often daunting tasks, burnout is likely close by!

As leaders, it’s our responsibility to make sure our team members understand the impact their work makes on each person they serve - within our organization as well as with external customers. We’ll work through some very specific ways we can do that soon enough. First though, we need to touch on one more thing we’ll need to be alert to as well as something we absolutely CANNOT do if we really want to lead our teams…

Equal Opportunities or Equitable Opportunities?

So what if that burnout we so often hear about really is a result of being uninspired rather than just plain tired? What can we do as a leader to provide our team members with what they need to find true fulfillment in what may seem like such a mundane routine? Quite frankly, that conversation could go on for hours for any given individual we’re working to apply it to. Since neither you or I have the time for that right here and now, and since Cindy and I have put together a few specific lessons in our Leading At The Next Level program that covers this in more detail, the point I’ll stick with here is that we CANNOT use a cookie-cutter approach with every single team member and expect it to have sweeping results!

 In all the years I was involved in incident investigations, we constantly battled with the idea of whether or not we were being fair with an individual who had been injured when we had to issue a formal disciplinary action because of how their behavior contributed to the incident. To be fair, we needed to be consistent in administering like discipline each time a behavior involved violated a work rule and contributed to an incident. The challenge with that was the likelihood that the same behavior was occurring hundreds (if not thousands) of times without resulting in an incident, and was rarely acknowledged even with a supervisor or manager watching. While we were indeed fair in handling the incidents consistently (at least most of the time), I was always frustrated because we absolutely were not just in addressing the actual behaviors consistently across the board.

OK Wes, why the rabbit trail through semantics? Well, words matter… Fair and Just are two very different things, and so are Equity and Equality! As leaders, there’s often an expectation to treat all of our team members equally so there’s not so much as a perception of favoritism - and we won’t even get into any hot cultural topics with that right now… But is that really an approach that truly serves any one of our team members effectively? I don’t believe it is IF we’re genuinely interested in providing each individual with what they need most to find fulfillment, and therefore inspiration, for what we expect them to do on a daily basis. 

An article I found by Mental Floss explains it this way:

  • Equality has to do with giving everyone the exact same resources.
  • Equity involves distributing resources based on the needs of the recipients.

Whether we’re considering the opportunities we provide our team members or the way we communicate the importance of their role to earn their buy-in and engagement, we need to focus far more on their specific needs than spewing the same canned speech at everyone with hopes that the RAH-RAH will prevent some of the quiet quitting… We’ll look at some specific things we can do to really tailor our approach soon, based on a study I found in a Bloomberg article as well as a book I just finished by Patrick Lencioni, but before we do that there’s one thing we need to make sure we NEVER do if we want to lead our team effectively and avoid that so-called epidemic of quiet quitting!

Quiet Firing: Childish and Unacceptable!

Let me emphasize it again just in case we’re not on the same page… Quiet quitting may be a relatively new term but it ain’t a new thing! And while I’ll never suggest I’m OK with someone giving less than satisfactory effort expecting a world-class reward, I’m also not OK with the folks who are charged with leading those people shirking all responsibility for a team just getting by because 50% of them fall in the albatross that’s neither actively engaged nor actively disengaged - that spot Teddy Roosevelt could have been referring to when he mentioned “those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat…”

For those who are willing to accept the responsibility that comes with leaders, the responsibility of moving our team members from tired to inspired, we need to do everything in our power to help them understand and value how their individual contributions serve a bigger picture and we need to help them tie that back to the things they value most as individuals. That’s what we need to apply equity rather than equality! I’ll tie all this together soon by detailing some simple things we can apply to be sure we’re meeting those individual needs. Before we do that though, there’s one final thing that’s grabbed my attention as I’ve sifted through so many articles around this quiet quitting idea…

I found something in the Wall Street Journal explaining that The Backlash Against Quiet Quitting Is Getting Loud, that shared this perspective:

“Every generation of workers has had its anti-work philosophies and many managers and striving colleagues have always taken issue with them. Cue the quiet-quitting backlash: The concept has sparked a flood of vehement commentary from business leaders, career coaches and other professionals lamenting what the shift away from hustle culture means for Americans’ commitment to their jobs, while some young professionals are praising it.”

While I get their point, I still believe that falls more in line with finger pointing than taking responsibility for initiating change… But it’s far better than an approach I’ve seen referenced, quiet firing… And an article I found on Forbes.com called 6 Signs That Quiet Firing Could Be Trending In Your Workplace explained that this way, “quiet firing happens when an employer may or may not have a specific reason to exit an employee from the business and takes actions that make that person’s job unpleasant or unrewarding in order to get an employee to leave on his or her own terms.”

I’m not hashing all that out here, check out the article if you like… The statement I will make on that though is that anyone taking that approach to combat what they perceive as quiet quitting, to make a job unpleasant enough for the team member to leave on their own rather than having the backbone to address any undesirable behavior, doesn’t deserve the responsibility of leading a team. Someone displaying that type of childish behavior may indeed have a title of supervisor or manager, but they’re damn sure not leading - and they don’t deserve the respect of the rewards that eventually come from authentic leadership - so they can’t hardly expect to receive the active engagement that yields those results!

Since that’s clearly not anyone who’s been willing to hang with me this far through the process, I look forward to picking up next time with what we can do to provide each individual team member with what inspires them and earns that active engagement!