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Quiet quitting: The real story (don’t blame Gen Z)

By John M. Bremen | October 18, 2022

The phenomenon of quiet quitting, made viral by a TikTok video this summer, is not actually new. Effective leaders act decisively, confronting the causes and issues directly.
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The phenomenon of quiet quitting, made viral by a TikTok video this summer, is not actually new; the concepts of low employee engagement and reduced discretionary effort have existed for decades. But with labor productivity falling during Q2 and showing the largest year-over-year decline since the U.S. Labor Department began tracking in 1948, and unit labor costs experiencing their largest four-quarter increase since 1982 due to undersupply of workers plus high inflation, the impact on business is real. Effective leaders act decisively, confronting the causes and issues directly.

Definitions associated with quiet quitting vary, with most focusing on either setting realistic boundaries that prevent burnout, or not going the extra mile at work (also called “working to rule”). These definitions contain important differences because setting boundaries generally is more active and can have positive outcomes for both employee and employer, but lack of discretionary effort can be either active or passive and generally is perceived as negative for both employee and employer. Unlike employees who leave the organization as part of the Great Resignation, this latter group of employees “quit and stay.”

While these behaviors are not new, they are amplified in the current environment due to labor market disruption combined with employee coping and survival strategies resulting from exhaustion from the pandemic, economic and geopolitical uncertainty, severe staffing shortages, isolation from remote work, anxiety from returning to workplaces, reduced employee purchasing power caused by inflation and dependent care challenges.

  1. 01

    Do not pin quiet quitting on Gen Z

    Employee engagement challenges began long before there was such a thing as Gen Z or TikTok. Effective leaders do not subscribe to generational or other stereotypes. Instead, they consider each employee as a unique individual with their own set of needs and priorities, and they consider the impact of quiet quitting across the entire organization.

  2. 02

    Double down on the employee experience

    The employee experience (EX) is the sum of moments that matter in an employee's daily life in an organization. EX is about being inspired by the purpose of the organization, making connections with colleagues and leaders, doing meaningful work, and feeling valued and fairly rewarded. Effective leaders use these key elements to re-energize workers, especially as their organizations undergo change.

  3. 03

    Focus on purpose

    Purpose has the power to motivate employees in unique ways. A Kumanu Harris poll in December 2021 reports employees are two times more likely to stay at a purpose-driven organization and four-times more likely to be more engaged at work. Effective leaders emphasize company purpose, vision and values, and help employees forge connections to individual purpose and appreciation for how their contributions impact the organization and its performance.

  4. 04

    Invest in manager and leader effectiveness

    Managers and leaders are under pressure to navigate through new and undefined challenges, and employees rely on them and their relationships in very different ways than in the past. Effective leaders make sure managers understand their role and value in addressing engagement and quiet quitting, rethink how managers are trained and deployed, and invest in their own development in a very different world.

  5. 05

    Address flexible work challenges

    Effective leaders balance remote and in-person work and help employees find a new equilibrium, making any return to workplaces positive. They know that they cannot expect workers to be available 24/7 and that they cannot simply throw more assignments on already overwhelmed employees when they are short-handed and experiencing stress. They also know they need to respect boundaries.

  6. 06

    Transform pay and benefits

    To reduce both turnover and quiet quitting, effective leaders update pay and benefits programs that address multiple challenges for both new hires and existing employees. They ensure that pay is competitive and fair in shifting labor markets. They continue to modernize and personalize health benefits and savings and retirement plans, which represent a top priority of employees in an uncertain environment.

  7. 07

    Listen to employees and seek understanding

    Effective leaders know that employees value being heard, seen and understood in an environment where it is safe to share perspectives and where employees matter. Engaging employees through regular listening (formal and informal), acknowledging needs and concerns, and communicating with empathy, compassion, transparency, dignity and recognition, leads to greater engagement and less likelihood of quiet quitting.

  8. 08

    Focus on wellbeing

    Research shows 30% of U.S. workers are struggling financially, 43% are having difficulty meeting basic needs, and 62% feel burned out from work. Effective leaders strive to meet employees’ unique physical, emotional, financial and social wellbeing needs, and foster the physical and psychological safety that enable employees to remain engaged and thrive under the most trying conditions. 86% of employers are making it a top priority to address stress, burnout, anxiety and depression, and to reduce presenteeism among their workforces.

    Effective leaders don’t fight employees on managing their challenges and issues. They know that more than half of U.S. employees are either looking for new opportunities or at risk of leaving their employer. They now dynamically and directly confront something even more vexing: workers who quit and stay.

A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.com on September 20, 2022.

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