A Loud Rethink of Quiet Quitting

Carol Braddick, Nicolas Ceasar & Thomas Wright
Jul 25 2023 | Insights

Quiet quitting is having a moment – again.

Back in the news from Gallup’s latest research, there’s an even more worrisome type of quitter lurking in organizations: the loud quitters. These actively disengaged employees are purportedly taking “actions that directly harm the organization, undercutting its goals and opposing its leaders”. So here we are - again- rebranding disengagement using language that is even more pejorative, more accusatory.

Could we craft the elusive term that comprehensively, elegantly characterizes the complex ever-evolving dynamic between employers and employees? Between people and their work? And should we bother? In her Wired article on the inadequacies of another widely used term, The Great Resignation, Katherine Hymes urges us to “continue to understand and describe” such phenomenon, “rather than grasping for a single, overloaded term”.

The absence of a single term for low engagement can lead us to settle for convenient soundbites. It should instead challenge us to look deeper into underlying, systemic causes. Thankfully, the hashtag #languagematters is popping up on social media posts that highlight the flaws in framing engagement levels by brandishing a reproachful finger at employees.

If we default to the convenience of labels, let’s at least recognize that we are trying to capture a reconfiguration that is still in motion, i.e., an ongoing rethinking by many white collar technology- enabled employees of:

  • Work-life balance, when and how to set boundaries as well as the role work plays in the context of life more broadly;

  • Alignment of their values and aspirations with those -professed and actual - of the organization;

  • The meaning they derive from their work and how they identify with work;

  • How synchronous and asynchronous work is managed, communicated and achieved;

  • The need to feel seen even when not in an office environment; and

  • Trends in the external realities of inflation and supply/demand in the labor market.

This framing of an ongoing reset respects the agency of the employee actively engaged in “calibrated contributing”, a positive alternative conceptualization suggested by Jim Detert of the University of Virginia. Instead of the connotation that some employees are lazy, calibrators seek a rational match between their effort at work and what they get in return.

Today’s calibrators are seeking this match in the unique context of the collective experience we have all just gone through: a global pandemic of loss, grief and exhaustion on multiple levels. Our amnesia about this near term past, and wish for COVID to be fully, finally over, fools us into thinking the old ways can still work when they never will. Organisational rituals and routines and leadership and management practices have all been upended. We are still muddling through, developing new skills, experimenting with different forms of hybrid working with tensions surfacing between employer’s pull back to offices and employees drawing their lines in new places.

The failure to recognise these new calibrations is not the fault of the so-called quitter, loud or quiet. It’s a failure to create the conditions that spark and sustain engagement and allow for the ongoing exchange of information and insight, conditions that have been well researched for years such as the important role of managers in fostering these conditions regardless of place.

As we attempt to upgrade our rituals and routines and relational and management practices for this new era, we need to both value the present and past and what it provides us as well as focus on the future. If we can integrate what has come before, savour it, learn from and apply it with this post-modern context we are far more likely to be able to go forward collectively in ways that reduce the assumptions within this amnesia.

The RSA future change framework and toolkit is one way to think about this – and not just for crisis periods such as lockdowns

During the ongoing reset we are experiencing, this framework offers a way to reconfigure – to reach a new mix of practices. Instead of anxiously attempting a return to a previous state, e.g., by adding just a bit of water to bring “it” back, ensuring its weaknesses endure.

  • End – close down temporary solutions used for a specific period that no longer exists; learn from the experience of using these solutions

  • Amplify – make even greater use of new, innovative approaches that have potential to effect deeper, systemic change

  • Let go – recognize activities that are no longer fit for our future and actively work to prevent regression back to the familiar norm

  • Restart – bring back - in smarter ways that add more value than previously - what has been paused

Coaching conversations - if both amplified and restarted where they have lapsed – can reveal the barriers to higher levels of engagement and explore ways to restore engagement. These conversations are not limited to formal one-to-one sessions between a manager and a team member. Instead, they take place in any direction, as a default style of interacting using coaching skills. Skills such as questioning from a stance of genuine interest that is free from the urge to explicitly recommend. Curiosity that is free of assumptions about individuals and what they seek in their work. Interactions that provide the experience of being heard – both for what has been clearly shared and what hasn’t been said overtly. Feedback that takes an employee to their developmental edge whilst also preserving psychological safety.

EZRA has reconfigured its coaching solutions to address the full spectrum of high and low engagement clients report from their organizations. An employee working with EZRA Focus, for example, works with an external coach 1:1 in short, sharp sessions to zero in on what really counts for that employee. An employee with an overwhelming workload might be disengaged or so engaged that their health and work life balance are at risk. His or her coaching sessions might focus on ways to trim the workload just enough to find the time to focus, prioritize and create space for the learning that will boost engagement.

EZRA Academy Facilitators work with organizations to build coaching skills among large groups of employees so that more employees experience coaching conversations – aka the coaching ripple effect. Using these coaching skills, working at the 1:1 or team level, can increase ownership, unearth novel and new practices, and reduce the risk of disengagement.

EZRA research has also identified five sets of practices that will help organizations retain employees. While the Gallup recommendation that each manager have a meaningful conversation with every employee every week may be feasible and effective in some situations, one-size-fits-all solutions rarely fit all. For example, employees on globally dispersed teams in different time zones working hybrid remote / in-office schedules need to feel seen, particularly by their direct managers. Recognizing this need and intentionally using other practices shared in EZRA research will help build work cultures that enable all employees to flourish.

Let’s get loud about removing quiet quitting from both our post pandemic lexicon and work experiences.

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