Making Sense of Quiet Quitting Pt. 1 – What’s New and What’s Not
Dr. Gayatri Pandit, Victoria Lindsay¹, June 2023
Over the Fall of 2022, the term ‘Quiet Quitting’ started buzzing in social media and business publications. Since then, we have heard about ‘Quiet Firing,’ ‘Loud Layoffs’, ‘Quiet Hiring’. We wonder what causes the emergence of such terms in our collective social media spaces. Is it the quick-turn news cycles requiring sound bites or is it something more enduring? Does our time spent understanding these terms bring us value? We at Denison Consulting have given some thought to this emergence of new language to describe organizational norms and behaviors and we present a 2-part paper. The first part explores the enduring patterns reflected in Quiet Quitting and highlights aspects that are new and not so new. The second part shares what the data from the Denison benchmark database tells us about Quiet Quitting and includes recommendations for the next steps.
PART 1: What’s Not New and What’s New
As organizational culture consultants, we witness both enduring organizational patterns that weather trends as well as disruptions that require adaptations within the organization. We believe enduring patterns are often served up with new labels and sometimes the new phenomena are indeed disruptions to the way we think.
Let us look at ‘Quiet Quitting’ in particular. The quiet quitting references mostly seem to refer to employees who are disengaged from their jobs or their organizations. Following on the heels of the ‘Great Resignation’, quiet quitting appeared as a fuzzy synonym for a lack of engagement, with the added assumption of employee silence. The term appeared to have been coined by a Gen Z originator, presumably intended to reflect the challenges faced primarily by Millennials and Gen Z in the workplace. However, the concept was not entirely new.
What’s not new about Quiet Quitting?
The underlying behaviors that we associate with quiet quitting have been around for a while. This trend appears to be a variation of employee engagement, involvement, and inclusion within the workplace. Research shows that organizations that lack a strong culture tend to have a higher rate of disengaged employees. The recent references to quiet quitting are likely driven in part by the environmental factors in the workplace brought about by the pandemic. Denison Consulting CEO, Dr. Bryan Adkins, reminds us that in the late 80s and early 90s, we saw conversations emerge about the breaking of the “psychological contract” between employees and employers. The focus on employee engagement in terms of citizenship behaviors² and discretionary effort took hold over the turn of the century. The notion of citizenship was often used as an indicator of employee engagement. The concept of ‘discretionary effort’ or, the employee’s willingness to go above and beyond regular requirements of the job, also implied that discretionary effort was a key indicator of employee engagement.
“If employees aren’t being challenged to innovate and adapt; If they are not being encouraged to understand the marketplace and customers they serve; If they are not hearing a compelling purpose or vision for the future, over time for employees – not intentionally – the question becomes, why would I care?”
-Dr. Bryan Adkins
The premise of ‘expectations’ has evolved over time. The pandemic is the most recent example of how employer and employee expectations have been challenged. The basic assumption of where and when work is done has challenged employer assumptions and they have realized they are not entirely in the driver’s seat for setting those expectations. The relationship is not always equal, and different economic cycles may result in greater power shifting to either employees or employers. Employers, answerable to shareholders, are constantly raising the bar on expectations from employees. Frequently, employees are not entirely on the same page.
As business cycles change, expectations change. With each new generation that enters the workplace, expectations also change. The unique conditions of this most recent cycle generated by the pandemic, and the volatile labor market that followed (aka, the great resignation), have resulted in this notion of quiet quitting. However, with the economic downturn and recession, it is hard to say where the power lies in the current employee/employer relationship.
What is new?
Quiet quitting is a ‘fuzzy’ term, with multiple interpretations. However, the level of continuing debate in the media indicates that it has touched some nerves. What is accepted by most is that the popularity of the hybrid workplace model means that many are setting new boundaries by placing an emphasis on work-life balance, rather than focusing on ‘work is life’. The younger workforce seems to be responding to this trend to a stronger degree. We see quiet quitting as a response to Millennial and Gen Z workers who are not buying into the traditional definitions of engagement. We see resistance to the concept of discretionary effort, especially if that discretionary effort is defined by time in the office or time accessible online. Hybrid or remote work also minimizes employees’ ability to recognize their impact on the organization or see the value of working with a team or notice the benefits of decentralized decision-making.
Quiet quitting has introduced a new set of contradictions for citizenship behaviors. While most references to quiet quitting assume that individuals are not willing to give their best to their job, some question the expectations associated with ‘going above and beyond’ for the company. In all organizations (and especially in contract-dependent jobs like consulting), there is often a distinction between the job requirements and other citizenship behaviors. Job descriptions often do not include these other behaviors and employees are not assessed or compensated for these behaviors. However, we know that citizenship behaviors are crucial for healthy cultures, and these are the ties that bind and strengthen organizations. So, we wonder, where are the gaps between expectations of a healthy organization and the inclusion of additional, discretionary behaviors (e.g., innovation, mentoring, peer support) within the standard talent management systems of the organization?
There are other contradictions in how the term ‘quiet quitting’ is understood. For example, there is a narrative that assumes quiet quitting is synonymous with doing only the minimum required work. However, the assumption of “minimum required” is also interesting. In this case, we wonder who defines the ‘minimum’ – is it an organizational norm or is it set by individual managers? There is a contradictory sense that if minimum expectations are set, employees might meet those and nothing else, with the implicit assumption that they are meeting expectations.
Another interpretation that seems to address contradictions is that quiet quitting reflects intentionally calibrated contributions by employees, where they match effort to what they receive. This would mean doing the job well but not taking on more, such as extra shifts, volunteering to fill the gaps, trying out improvements, etc. We wonder if this is a lack of engagement or going beyond engagement to having employees enact what they consider a fair transaction. In other words, leveling the relationship. In this scenario, the employees have taken the power to shape their psychological contract. In particular, for older generations, Gen X or Y, quiet quitting might represent “slacker-ish” behaviors. However, it could also be “a healthy expression of the need to rebuild boundaries that collapsed during the pandemic.” It emerges as a redefinition of the power dynamics between employers and employees.
A contradictory interpretation is the emphasis on the ‘quiet’ aspect of the term. This indicates a darker norm. The ‘quiet’ reference could be about not wanting to stand out (which typically drives discretionary effort) or could reflect the emerging sense of employee voice (or lack thereof). This goes back to a lack of engagement or an inability to speak up. Not being able to speak up about whatever it is that causes the lack of engagement means “suffering in silence,” a dangerous state for the individual and the organization’s culture. This is where we see issues emerge regarding psychological safety and organizational silence.
We know that quiet quitting peaked in the Fall of 2022 and references to the term have since tapered off. However, we have continued seeing references related to the “quiet” aspect of multiple phenomena e.g., quiet firing, quiet hiring, copycat layoffs, or resenteeism. These norms take the problematic notion of silence and further compound it with a shift in the power dynamic, favoring the employer. It could also imply that much happens in a hybrid work environment that is simply not visible, or at least as visible as it may have been pre-pandemic, and thus practices and behaviors that have always been present are perceived as happening more ‘quietly.’
Click here for Part 2 of this two-part series. In Part 2, we explore Quiet Quitting using data insights (from the Denison Benchmarking Database including over 1000 organizations) and offer recommendations for actions that can help organizations manage those parts of quiet quitting that might impact organizational culture.
¹ Contributors: Dr. Bryan Adkins, Jay Richards, Austin Adams
² Ocampo, L., Acedillo, V., Bacunador, A.M., Balo, C.C., Lagdameo, Y.J. and Tupa, N.S. (2018), “A historical review of the development of organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) and its implications for the twenty-first century”, Personnel Review, Vol. 47 No. 4, pp. 821-862. https://doi.org/10.1108/PR-04-2017-0136