By Dr Hannah Haikal

“Quiet quitting” a term coined by Zaid Khan, a young engineer expressing his views in a TikTok video that went viral in July 2022 with more than 3.5million views to-date. This set off an online phenomenon and intense media buzz that has dominated our feeds ever since. Those who quiet quit their jobs are rebelling against the hustle culture “not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond” Zaid explains in his TikTok video.

The mass media coverage illustrates conflicting views. Supporters advocate that this is in fact about putting boundaries in place to safeguard mental health and prioritize other life pursuits and reject the negative sentiment surrounding quiet quitting. They maintain that it is in fact doing your job, exactly what you’re paid to do, no more and no less. Those against it suggest that it adds pressure to colleagues at work, usually minority groups less able to thrive and that quiet quitters should channel their frustrations to address workplace issues head on. A third camp maintain that it’s nothing new, it is a new term for a perennial topic; employee disengagement and its link to discretionary effort.

Nothing new, good or bad, the sheer attention this topic has received invites us to examine why it’s so pertinent right now. Quiet quitting captures the zeitgeist, with employees feeling that they are overworked and underpaid exacerbated by the rising cost of living and increasingly toxic workplaces. There is less concern over job security in the wake of the pandemic and people are rethinking their values and work ethos with greater priority given to wellbeing and work-life balance.

Analytics firm, Gallup, recently conducted a survey about quiet quitting, those who are neither engaged nor actively disengaged, in Gallup terms “not engaged”. Conducted in the US, findings show that quiet quitters make up approximately half of the American workforce and that this has been a consistent finding for the last few years with no significant shifts. The study also showed that when it comes to workers feeling cared for by their company, a measure that reached peak levels during the pandemic, only 21% of the 15,000 workers surveyed agreed, representing a significant drop in the past two years. “Employer care” is a theme that has been linked to important organizational outcomes such as retention, burnout and brand advocacy. Gallup research also highlights a significant change in the percentage of engaged employees under the age of 35 which dropped by 6% between 2019 and 2022 a concerning finding given the rising levels of young people in today’s workplace.

Whatever your position on the topic, we know the importance of employee engagement for business. While you may not expect or need all your people to go above and beyond in their role, every high performing company will want to motivate and inspire their people to do their best work. Below are some tips for leaders and HR professionals who want to do just that.

Advice for leaders

  • One size does not fit all

Scientific research tells us that while factors such as compensation and benefits are important, they are not strong levers of motivation. Financial reward is often referred to as a hygiene factor, or an extrinsic motivator, the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Great leaders ensure these basic needs are met and then tap into the top of the pyramid for those factors that will inspire and motivate team members to go above and beyond. Focus your efforts on sharing feedback and recognition, having career conversations and providing meaningful work. Importantly, one size does not fit all, so take time to understand what motivates and drives your respective team members and personalize your approach and value proposition for each member accordingly.

  • Hold proactive “stay interviews”

Many leaders understand the importance of retaining their best people, ironically most wait until a team member hands in their resignation before asking what it will take to make them stay. When you hold what is known as “stay interviews” proactively, you can transform engagement levels in your team and avoid cases of quiet quitting that are in your control. Try a few of these questions during your next one-on-one.

  • Don’t be a talent hoarder

While organizations are beginning to recognize the value of creating an internal talent marketplace, in practice leaders are often found to block internal moves and prevent their people from career advancement outside of their team. No one wants to lose their key players; however great leaders recognize the importance of letting people go and the very best leaders will help them to get there. Evidence suggests that leaders who let their people pursue opportunities and actively support their career advancement develop great reputations and it becomes a virtuous circle whereby internal talent will want to work for you and you will in turn see better retention.

  • Spot pre-quitting behaviors

While this article is focused on quiet quitting, we are still contending with the great resignation or the great talent reshuffle or whatever the latest catch-phrase is to describe the mass exodus of workers from their jobs. So, as well as motivating team members to want to go over and above, it’s also essential to prevent unwanted attrition in your teams. Look out for these pre-quitting behaviors and work on mitigation strategies before it’s too late.

Advice for HR teams

  • Measure what matters

Retention and engagement will inevitably form a core element of your people strategy. Innovations in HR technology allows for what we call an “always on listening strategy”. Pulse engagement tools capture quantitative and qualitative data on engagement drivers and allow us to generate insights and examine patterns across different demographic groups, teams and departments. These sophisticated tools powered by AI will generate cross survey intelligence and analytics with real-time dashboards, pin-pointing relationships between new joiner surveys, pulse engagement and exit feedback. This will inform what matters most to your people, right now, and allow HR teams (and leaders) to tailor engagement strategies.

  • Create a talent marketplace

Again, leverage the latest HR tech to ensure you are connecting internal talent with opportunities to grow their career. Mobilizing talent across your company aligned to the business needs and individual aspirations is a win-win. It will reduce the cost and time to hire, engage your people with lateral and upward career opportunities and foster a culture of trust and transparency. It has also been correlated with market performance. One of the reasons people quit the idea of going above and beyond (or quit their job altogether) is due to limited career growth opportunities and a feeling of resentment when they feel passed over for a job filled by external talent. Ensure that any new systems are well supported by policies and practice, pay particular attention to nurturing a talent mobility culture with leaders who actively share, rather than hoard talent.

  • Set your leaders up for success

Leadership theories such as servant leadership and authentic leadership have been around for decades, but the pandemic accelerated the need for leaders to shift from more traditional, autocratic styles to what some call 21st century leadership. Leaders who build and sustain high performing, highly engaged teams tend to be those who genuinely care about people, coach them to do their best work and are unafraid to show vulnerability which fosters psychological safety in their teams. Despite the performance management revolution adopted in companies across the globe, the fundamental practice of holding regular meaningful one-to-one conversations is lacking in many companies. HR teams play a key role in both hiring and developing great leaders.

Whether you buy into the latest hype around quiet quitting or not, if you lead people or work in HR there are a lot of great practices to draw from that will serve you well as you navigate evolving expectations of what good work means to your people.