Why “Quiet Quitting” is More Complicated than it Might Seem

Have you ever felt burnt out by the imbalance between “work” and “life”? Emailing around the clock, arriving early and staying late, helping a colleague out at the expense of your own responsibilities, showing as much dedication to your role as possible – these are extra behaviours that go the extra mile and can result in a stellar work reputation, but can take a huge personal toll, and most of us have felt that toll at one time or another. So it’s not a surprise that the term “Quiet Quitting” has permeated the zeitgeist over the last few months. Kicked off by a 17-second TikTok video by Zaiad Khan, who speaks in soothing tones, juxtaposed with a video of the New York City subway, he describes Quiet Quitting like this: “You’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond. You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life; the reality is it’s not, and your worth as a person is not defined by your labor.” At the time of writing, the video has 3.5 million views, and has spawned an online phenomenon, including articles in the New York Times, NPR, the BBC, CNN, and every other business-focused news outlet.

Neither the term nor the actions described by it are actually new; the term is believed to have been coined by Economist Mark Boldger at a Texas A&M economics symposium on “Diminishing Ambitions in Venezuela” on September 17th 2009, while the actions (or lack thereof) now known as Quiet Quitting have been identified for decades – perhaps even longer. Anthony Klotz, associate professor at University of College London’s School of Management, says “Although this has come from a younger generation and in new packaging, this trend has been studied under different names for decades: disengagement, neglect, withdrawal.”

Valid arguments have been made that this is simply a response to the expectations held by a toxic culture of busyness; a fair interpretation that protrays this as a workers’ revolution; reclaiming boundaries and taking back power from hierarchical power structures that have grown excessive over the decades. The pandemic helped people to see what was truly important in their lives, and work was found wonting; it was one component, not the be-all and end-all. Of course, this is an oversimplification, and glosses over the reality that the ability to “Quiet Quit” comes with privilege; many members of marginalized identity groups don’t have the luxury of a Quiet Quitting option; they feel the need to work as hard as possible to prove their worth and show their contribution. Even if there are legal protections in place to protect their jobs, I have known many members of marginalized communities who feel constantly in the spotlight, and work incredibly hard to consistently shine above and beyond their privileged peers. (In addition to individual identity, some jobs may be harder to Quiet Quit than others. For some jobs – think teachers, or doctors – Quiet Quitting is akin to simply outright quitting, and could result in disciplinary action.) Quiet Quitting also carries the risk of hurting a person’s reputation as they apply for a new job, although if you value a work/life balance, you will likely look for an organization that shares and demonstrates those values too.

Quiet Quitting is more complex than it might seem on the surface. But at it’s heart it’s a reaction to the imbalance of “work” and “life”. So with all this in mind, what might your role be with your team this week?

This week’s tip:

Help create an environment that honors boundaries and supports personal lives away from work:

  1. Set clear boundaries for yourself and communicate them to others. For example, a Building Bridges Leadership client’s CEO email signature makes note of his own work schedule, and the times when he’s not available for work in order to spend more time with his family. This week, begin to set your own boundaries and communicate them to others to encourage a supportive and accountable community.
  2. Support others in setting their own boundaries – and ensure that yours aren’t prescriptive. In your one-on-one and team meetings this week, encourage others to set their own boundaries, and follow-up to help make that a reality. Going back to the email signature above, our client’s CEO notes that he does not expect others to work on a similar schedule to him, instead asking that they respond at a time that is convenient to them.
  3. Respect your team’s boundaries – and resist the urge to test them! You may want to email your team members during their “non-work” times; if possible, schedule your email to send during their next work block.
  4. Remember your goal – you want your team to be fulfilled and active, not overwhelmed and wanting to Quiet Quit. This may take time, feedback, and iterations. You may not get this perfect this week, or any week. That’s okay. Work towards your goal, and don’t expect perfection – or you might Quiet Quit too!

Try this out this week, and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group! We’d love to hear from you. As always, you can subscribe to our feed here, or sign up for our weekly newsletter to get these articles directly in your inbox.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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