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The term ‘quiet quitting’ was initially coined at a Texas A&M University’s economics symposium on diminishing ambitions in Venezuela in September 2009 by economist Mark Boldger. The term continued to be used by other figures, including writer Nick Adams and economist Thomas Sowell. The film Office Space (1999) depicts a character engaging in quiet quitting; in the film, Ron Livingston’s character Peter Gibbons abandons the concept of work entirely and does the bare minimum required of him.
However, the phrase gained currency in April 2021, when a movement in China arose known as tang ping (“lying flat”). Tang ping shares many common characteristics with quiet quitting, although the concept of quiet quitting predates the movement. In 2022, quiet quitting experienced a surge in popularity in numerous publications following a viral TikTok video. That same year, Gallup found that roughly half of the U.S. workforce was quiet quitters.
People have always coasted at work. But the flurry of debate speaks to the fact that this idea — whether we agree with its label or whether it’s new — is resonating with people at a time when the power dynamic between employee and employer is shifting. Researchers who study organisational behaviour, leadership, and employee engagement and performance found some effective ways managers can create a work environment where employees want to engage.
One of the core issues of quiet quitting has to do with what management researchers call a psychological contract. In contrast to a written employment contract that some workers might sign when starting at a new company, a psychological contract contains the unwritten expectations and obligations that employees and employers (including managers) have of and to one another.
Just a few generations ago, the psychological contract for most workers was transactional: Employees were expected to show up, work 9-to-5, and be rewarded with a paycheck and a pension. Our parents were a good example of this contract. They worked about 30 years, then retired with a pension and a watch.
Since then, employees have come to define their relationship with their employer more broadly, in what’s called a relational contract. It is more than a steady paycheck. Employees want interesting, challenging work. They seek opportunities for growth and development. Employees want to build meaningful relationships and be supported. In exchange, they won’t just check the boxes in our job description. They will come in early, stay late, help our colleagues, go the extra mile, and be good organisational citizens. When employees feel like employers aren’t keeping up their end of the bargain, you end up with quiet quitting. In other words, workers are starting to define their psychological contract more narrowly — more transactionally.
Managers need to build strong, trusting relationships with employees. In some cases, they need to regain the trust of employees who think they’ve reneged on their deal. Managers should also communicate openly and honestly about their — and the organisation’s — expectations of employees from day one. Companies can use realistic job previews in the selection process to help define expectations.
Whereas some organisations want to highlight only the best parts of working at their company — they’re trying to attract candidates, after all — those that highlight both the positives, and the negatives provide a more accurate picture of what the job is going to be like and subsequently improve commitment and retention.
Of course, if organisations want their employees to give more, they should give more to their employees. It’s a two-way street, and many workers these days feel like it’s just one way.
Feeling understood and supported by your boss decreases the likelihood of “quitting before leaving,” whereas verbally abusive leader behaviour increases it. Research has shown that the way a boss treats their subordinates makes a huge difference in whether people “quit quietly” — that is, keep doing only what they must, but no more.
Rather than debating whether quiet quitting is real (it is) or whether it’s a helpful strategy for a specific worker (it can be), we need to ask what sorts of work conditions cause these behaviours in the workplace.
Studies show that organisational citizenship and other such behaviours flourish when people are satisfied with their work and committed to the organisation. People are more satisfied and committed when they have decent leaders who treat them with respect, when the processes in the organisation are seen to be fair and just, and when they have high-quality work.
High-quality work, in turn, means having varied and meaningful tasks, clear goals, and a positive team climate. It means a job in which workers have some autonomy over their work, including a say not just in how they carry out their tasks but also — as much as is feasible — influence over where and when they work (for example, having the option to work from home some days if that is their preference).
Perhaps most relevant for workplaces today, high-quality work also means having levels of demands and expectations of workers that are reasonable. Research shows us that when workers are emotionally exhausted (an indicator of burnout), overwhelmed, or deeply fatigued, they reduce their citizenship behaviours.
This withdrawal of effort is a natural protective response in which an individual seeks to conserve, or restore, their depleted energy. To prevent quiet-quitting at a time when many people are fatigued and fed up, managers need to be especially careful about not overwhelming people with excessive job demands, long work hours, or unreasonable pressures.
Quiet quitting is, at its heart, an identity shift. Part of the answer lies in seeing who your employees are now rather than treating them as the person they once were. Approaching conversations with your employees in humanising ways that show care for the whole person rather than for a “hustler” or a “quiet quitter” signals respect in a more holistic way. When people feel valued holistically, they are more likely to naturally engage or reengage in their work.
Quiet quitting is not a new issue at all. It is simply suggesting a low level of engagement and motivation among workers, which is currently exacerbated by a rather uncertain and depressing environment, which creates disengagement at work as employees question their purpose; high inflation, which creates issues of internal equity — newcomers are getting pay raises, while the cost of living is skyrocketing for existing employees; and a confusing hybrid work environment that has weakened our social connections to the company culture and the potential friendships that we can build at work.
This latter driver is particularly important: Employees’ engagement relies on them feeling connected to one another individually and feeling part of a bigger purpose as a team working together on a collective endeavour. Bringing people back to the office is, to some extent, one solution against quiet quitting, if we can help them use office time to make meaningful connections, be their authentic selves, and share what unites them.
It is also about helping employees rethink their role in organisations and giving them the autonomy to be entrepreneurial — to lead new projects and shape their own contributions to the organisation instead of having tasks imposed on them in a top-to-bottom approach.
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