Quiet quitting is a subtle cry for good leadership

Oct 28, 2022

A video on the social media TikTok went viral with the message “Working is not your life”. US TikTok user @zaidleppelin‘s video has received half a million likes and has sparked a global discussion that puts “quitting mentally” into words.

In Denmark, the term has been googled more than 10,000 times over the last two months. Just before Covid, engagement in the global workforce increased for the first time in over a decade. Today, 1 year after the pandemic, it has stagnated worldwide. Again.

A new look at an old concept

Although the phenomenon has been dubbed “quiet quitting”, this type of employee behaviour is nothing new, but it has nevertheless returned in many companies, which have started to take an interest in the subject again. What is new in this context is that the zeitgeist is more “mature” as to talking about mental well-being at work.

But why are we talking about it again? The return of the phenomenon is a testament to the state of the world. Covid-19, remote home, overloaded employees, the arrival of younger generations and new work demands and cultures are among the reasons why work expectations have changed. Already in January – in the wake of Covid – “The Great Resignation” was being discussed. It created the popular trend “QuitToks” where people shared their stories on TikTok.

The phenomenon is a new look at an old concept, where employees protect themselves by not engaging in something where they get a negative response, or which causes work pressure or uncertainty that they are not interested in. This triggers withdrawal behaviour, where employees choose or feel pressured to withdraw by putting minimal effort into their jobs.

Quiet quitting is a silent self-defense. It is similar to a mental resignation, where employees withdraw because they feel powerless. Quiet quitting is therefore strongly linked to a lack of well-being in the workplace, and it is crucial that leaders develop their leadership behaviour and dedicate sufficient energy to exercising good leadership in order to move passive employees into active players.

Good management is the first and most important action in preventing work-life imbalance.

Good management should prevent the problem

Quiet quitting is resolved by good management behaviour, but if employees feel pressured, neglected or bored at work, they experience a drop in engagement. For these employees, life has become too short to pull themselves together and make an effort at work. Quiet quitting therefore highlights something that is important for leaders to be aware of in their day-to-day management.

Good management is therefore one of the biggest catalysts to avoid quiet quitting, so that employees feel valued and feel that their needs are being met. Therefore, lack of motivation to do one’s job can be counteracted by good management, so that leaders activate their employees, understand their needs, engage them and break the act of quiet quitting.

“Quiet quitting is a silent self-defense that is actually not about an unwillingness to work harder, but about a leader’s lack of ability to understand his or her employees and drive their commitment. As such, the phenomenon is nothing new – but with many organisations now integrating well-being into their employee well-being surveys, it is something we can measure and have a good insight into”, Anni Vind Frandsen, partner at People & Performance, says

Unengaged employees can be costly

According to Gallup’s “State of the global workplace” report, there is a direct link between engagement and well-being on the one hand – and economic growth on the other. Low engagement costs the global economy $7.8 trillion annually. It is linked to the fact that an unfulfilling work life influences the employee’s private life. And an unbalanced private life rubs off on one’s work. In this way, you are caught in a wheel that, for many, results in mental withdrawal.

“The phenomenon can bring something positive, as it can bring good and effective management higher on the agenda. At large companies, we see a direct link between engaging leaders and employee’s job satisfaction – but also higher performance. This is of course something that can be felt in the working environment, but certainly also on the bottom line. Put simply, it makes a lot of sense that highly engaged employees perform better – and in that way drive better results in the end”, Anni Vind Frandsen, partner in People & Performance, says.

The good leader must be aware of 3 mechanisms

By making behavioural demands, the leader can activate his or her colleagues and pull them in the right direction. The withdrawal is replaced by creating a new understanding through action. Both commitment and behaviour need to be worked on. Good leadership is a prerequisite for trust, which is built through involvement, demands for behaviour in the workplace and a conversation about what engages the individual.

Many factors have a direct influence on employees’ choice to retire, but common to the mechanisms below is that good management can prevent quiet quitting.

1. Coping mechanism

If your employees are experiencing stressors or burnout, quiet quitting is a coping mechanism. Employees withdraw from stress that is difficult to handle, and one response may be withdrawal behaviour in the form of minimising work effort. Withdrawal behaviour is a natural part of taking care of oneself, and as a leader you need to learn how to manage this form of self-protection in order to enhance well-being and engagement.

2. Psychological safety

As a leader, you are responsible for maintaining and strengthening the psychological safety of your employees. Your employees need to feel safe to engage without fearing negative consequences from those around them – colleagues, leaders and customers. Therefore, present leadership can help to increase employees’ psychological safety, ensuring an engaging work environment with high well-being. Psychological safety is thus one of the prerequisites for employees to not end up as quiet quitters, but rather that they feel motivated.

3. Engagement

As a leader, you need to be able to drive employee engagement through influence and involvement. If you as a leader do not invest enough time and energy in this, a withdrawal behaviour will occur, where employees settle into a passive working life. This happens, among other things, if employees do not feel that their work is motivating or rewarding. Therefore, as a leader, you need to actively engage your employees through presence, dialogue and motivation.

To find out more about how to get engaged and motivated employees, contact People & Performance for expert knowledge on good leadership that is embedded in everyday life.

Let us help you prevent quiet quitting

If you want to know how to prevent quiet quitting in your work culture, contact Anni Vind Frandsen, partner at People & Performance.

Do you want to read more on psychological safety?

If you are interested in further reading, you can read Professor Amy C. Edmondson’s research on psychological safety or an extract from her book on The Fearless Organisation.

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