Quelling Quiet Quitting

Quiet Quitting is trending—on TikTok, in articles and blogs. Definitions vary but tend to include things like (1) worker disengagement, (2) a refusal to go “above and beyond,” and (3) a re-set of work-life balance. On the surface, Quiet Quitting looks like an unwillingness to give what we call discretionary effort. But how you define it matters. If it is defined as limiting work to the stated work hours (to achieve better work-life balance), then it isn’t necessarily about discretionary effort. Our work at ADI focuses on helping our clients capture the discretionary effort of all employees, and we have always been clear that discretionary effort is not about working longer hours. Discretionary effort is about being fully engaged during the hours worked. It is about employees giving their all to behaviors that drive business results.

If, however, Quiet Quitting is about reduced engagement—if it is what we have long called doing “just enough to get by,” then it is very much about the loss of discretionary effort. Engagement is discretionary. There are many employees who do satisfactory work but are not fully engaged in making the business successful. This has always been true. For decades, Dr. Aubrey Daniels has referred to such workers as those that have “quit and stayed” (as opposed to those that quit and leave). 

The good news is, there is a way to capture or recapture discretionary effort—create a reinforcement-rich work experience. This may sound simple, but the key is understanding what is truly positively reinforcing to employees. Reinforcement is much more nuanced than most people think. Praise, pay raises, and promotions may be effective for some people but most people, especially younger generations are more likely to be reinforced by finding meaning in their work, feeling like they are part of a team, knowing the work they do matters, advancing a cause that is important to them, and contributing to the greater good. Leaders need to find ways to increase the frequency of these more subtle reinforcers.

The work-from-home phenomenon makes this more challenging, thus contributing to the rise in Quiet Quitting. Work from home has significantly altered the amount and nature of work-related reinforcers. Going into a physical office and working side by side with others provides a rich source of potential social reinforcement. Some of this is work-related (co-workers provide a positive comment on something you are working on, your supervisor takes a few minutes to give you some positive feedback after an effective meeting), and some of it is non-work related (the person in the cubical next to you gushing about the cute pictures of your kids on your desk, co-workers joking around the water cooler). All these things combine to create a reinforcement-rich environment. While working from home has its share of positives (working in more comfortable clothing, getting up 10 minutes before start time, having your dog at your feet during the day), the moment-by-moment reinforcers for work behaviors tend to be much less. The reality is, we are all much more likely to deliver social reinforcement in person. Saying thank you, telling someone a PowerPoint looks good, or comments about how satisfied a customer is, all much more likely when people are face to face.  When working from home, such social reinforcement requires an email, phone call, or text message. The response cost is much higher, and thus we do it less often.

The bottom line? If your organization is suffering from Quiet Quitting, then deliberately increasing the amount of positive reinforcement you use for work behaviors is a potential solution. Be sure to link it to what is meaningful to employees. The occasional “thank you” and “good job” is unlikely to help. Short conversations that point out how what someone is doing positively impacts customers, contributes to the greater good, and/or helps the team will be much more effective. Such frequent, positive conversations will help ensure employees feel valued, stay engaged, and do impactful work during business hours.

Posted by Judy Agnew, Ph.D.

As senior vice president of safety solutions, Judy spends her time helping clients create sustainable safety cultures. She also helps clients with strategy execution beyond safety, and general management and leadership improvement across cultural and generational differences.