Thoughts on Quiet Quitting
“Who are you here to see?” asked the nurse who was monitoring the door to the nursing unit. The elderly woman standing in line ahead of me replied, “Philip Morgan…He has a PhD in physics and taught at Harvard for many years. He was quite well known in his field.” Maybe it was an overly loquacious response, but I completely understood her need to tag Dr. Morgan’s credentials.
At the end of our lives, our former selves are hidden from view to all but those who knew us when. Vitality is traded for (hopefully, compassionate) care of our most basic needs which can smack of indignity, a reversion to babyhood, and even an assumption by loved ones that the care givers only see a pathetically frail body. When you remember them as independent, energetic, opinionated, and fully participating individuals in the larger world, it’s hard to accept others’ lack of curiosity about who they were (even more so if it’s your spouse).
We all want to be seen and appreciated for our uniqueness, whether we’re in that nursing unit as a patient or if we work there or work anywhere, actually. We want to matter and we want our perspectives heard. No one wants to be invisible.
The Sulls’ recent research on corporate culture (MIT Sloan Management Review) demonstrated that how one is treated is the top reason workers have been resigning in droves. Feeling like you’re just another “warm body” does not provide incentive to give it your all—maybe not even your minimum.
As I hear about what is currently dubbed “quiet quitting” (doing the job/keeping the hours and nothing beyond that), I have two reactions. “About time,” is my first thought because employees have been expected to do more with less for a very long time. The worst part has been expecting folks to be on call to their employer at every moment. I suspect Covid’s push to work from home only exacerbated this. I don’t know how invisible people feel in this case, but they certainly feel burdened and as if their personal time doesn’t matter.
My second thought is that doing the minimum (which may be less than what is referred to as “quiet quitting”) is what we used to call the lack of discretionary effort. That is the degree to which people are willing to go above and beyond meeting basic expectations.
Effort is not something that can be legislated or performance managed because that extra oomph originates from the worker’s internal state. Examples of discretionary effort are found in attention to detail, catching mistakes in advance of a problem, superior customer service or stepping up to help teammates. Workers can (and will) withhold when they are burned out or feel that what they do doesn’t matter because no one notices or cares about them as individuals—or because they are taken for granted.
Gallup survey results have indicated (for decades now) that having a manager who cares about you is a critical component of workplace satisfaction. It reflects the human desire to be seen, heard, and respected. Most of us will work harder for someone who treats us as valued individuals, not just interchangeable parts. Yet, it takes discretionary effort on the part of managers to care about the staff entrusted to them.
Some leaders are naturally wired to engage with employees, ask about their well-being, provide growth opportunities and guidance, and know something about their lives (we’re not talking about psychotherapy level discussions, just a warm relationship). Others struggle to keep their office door open, to say hello, or to use someone’s name. “Keep work, work. I don’t want to socialize,” they say. A more accurate comment might be, “I don’t know how.” They fear that they’ll get in too deep, not know what to say, have an entire day’s schedule derailed by a few personal exchanges or go down a rabbit hole from which there is no escape. They need coaching on how communicate that they value their staff members, that they really see them—not just comment on their productivity or areas for improvement.
You can’t demand caring because that’s an internal state. What can be done is to set up an environment that prompts the desire to care. Some examples are:
Give managers training and coaching in the interactive skills of leading and show an interest in their growth as leaders. Reward healthy actions like taking time off. Don’t expect them to work or respond to texts 24/7.
Provide employees with as much autonomy over their jobs as can be given. Notice how they are doing, praise extra effort but don’t demand they trade their lives for the job. Ask about their dreams for the future, take an interest.
Encourage caregivers to spend a moment chatting with a patient (yes, I know you’re short staffed) and teach them how to graciously exit if needed. Ask residents about the photos they have displayed. Share a little bit about yourself and listen to their advice when offered. It shows respect and you just might learn something.
We are all more than the snapshot we present to the world in any given moment. It’s important to remember that we’ve all had full lives up to this moment and continue to live lives that demand our attention. What we bring to work can be rich if it’s encouraged—and hidden if not. How we treat people really does make a difference. And the benefits go both ways.