An employee lays their head on the desk.
Image: Azat Valeev/Adobe Stock

As if a tough hiring market, challenges with when and where employees work, and persistent wage inflation were not enough, the new phenomenon of “quiet quitting” has entered the vernacular. The idea is simple: There are more important things to life than a job, and the quiet quitter has, according to the Washington Post, quit “the idea of going above and beyond at work.”

Why quiet quitting is a new term for an old leadership problem

Some experts have made the quiet quitting trend into a generational issue. Just as there was a lot of griping about Millennials in previous years, quiet quitting is being regarded as the participation trophy of the newest generation to enter the workforce by some and a workplace phenomenon with racist and sexist overtones by others.

SEE: The COVID-19 gender gap: Why women are leaving their jobs and how to get them back to work (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

However, most employees, whether they’re corporate leaders or junior analysts, have questioned their value and the direction of their lives at some point. Those questions manifest in ways that range from wondering what would have happened if we made a different career choice to questioning how much time we spend with our family.

Some people celebrate long workdays as a part of “hustle culture.” On the flipside, anyone who has worked outside the U.S. has likely noticed different attitudes toward work, including across advanced economies and workers with similar job titles — generally speaking, some cultures focus on the “life” side of work-life balance more than the United States.

An activity that consumes over 50% of our waking hours for most of our adult lives can and should be reflected upon regularly. If an individual can’t identify some degree of fulfillment and self-actualization from their current job, viewing it solely as a means of supporting other activities is not an irrational or unreasonable conclusion. It is incumbent on the employer to determine if that employee’s investment is worth the allotted compensation. If an employee’s performance is adequate, why not trust that their personal motivations and passions are their own business and need not be centered around the organization?

If quiet quitting is a new name for an old leadership challenge, and one that can and should be a routine part of every worker’s life, why is there new interest in it?

Why quiet quitting is a trust problem rather than an employee problem

A recent Harvard Business Review article quantifies what should be intuitive: Employees are more likely to be engaged and less likely to quit if they have a manager who rates highly on “balancing relationships with results.” The data is as you’d expect. For managers in the 90th to 100th percentile, 62% of employees are “willing to go the extra mile,” while only 20% express the same sentiment for a manager in the 1st to 9th percentile.

Employees who self-identify as “quiet quitters” remain surprisingly consistent in the top 50% of managers but increase as the managers’ quality decreases. Managers who take the time to build an effective working relationship versus a purely transactional one create engaged employees.

Leaders have asked a lot of their employees over the past few years. It’s easy to forget that during the previous 36 months, we did everything from taking over part of our employees’ homes, perhaps seeing their kitchens or bedrooms, to beeping their devices while they were also being asked to serve as unpaid school teachers or caretakers, to mandating various COVID-19 pandemic mitigations.

We also experienced these challenges and may have ignored or underplayed the development of our leadership skills or investment in deeper relationships with employees. Trust in all manner of institutions has been eroded, and there are likely managers and leaders who are considering their version of “quiet quitting” within your organization, even as they’re asked to mitigate this problem in their teams.

Repair employees’ trust, and the results will follow

Rebuilding trusted relationships with employees is not an easy or rapid task; however, in the long run, it’s likely to be effective at increasing employee engagement and decreasing quiet quitting. Individuals who trust that their leaders understand their concerns and balance them with the business needs are more likely to put in the extra time and effort to excel in their careers and generate better performance for your team.

If you’re only willing to minimally trust and understand employees’ concerns, are you really surprised that they’re only willing to do the minimal amount of work to get by?

One way to show employees that you’re invested in their lives and career development is by setting clear objectives. This ready-made TechRepublic Premium Employee Objectives Policy can help.

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