The True Cause of Quiet Quitting

quiet quitting
I’m quitting to pursue my dream of not working here. Ethan Sykes / Unsplash
By Yvonne Milosevic

Ever since the term “quiet quitting” blew up on TikTok over the summer, a feverish debate has erupted over what the expression truly means. Some believe it’s doing only the bare minimum of one’s job requirements to stay employed. Meanwhile, others think it’s just another way of championing healthy boundary-setting at work. Both camps would argue that we all need better work-life balance. But no matter how you define it, bad bosses—not employees—are typically the cause of the quiet quitting phenomenon. A recent piece in Harvard Business Review explains why.

Written by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman of the leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman, the article shares data gathered since 2020 on 2,801 managers and their 13,048 direct reports. They compared two data points:

  • How employees rated their manager’s ability to “balance getting results with a concern for others’ needs.”
  • To what extent did employees agree with the statement that their “work environment is a place where people want to go the extra mile.”

“We found that the least effective managers have three to four times as many people who fall in the ‘quiet quitting’ category compared to the most effective leaders,” Zenger and Folkman note. “But those who were rated the highest at balancing results with relationships saw 62% of their direct reports willing to give extra effort, while only 3% were quietly quitting.”

quiet quitting
Mentally OOO until further notice. / Unsplash

After analyzing data from more than 113,000 leaders, they determined that trust is the number-one trait that effective leaders elicit. “When direct reports trusted their leader, they also assumed that the manager cared about them and was concerned about their wellbeing.”

How Prevalent is Quiet Quitting?

According to a recent Gallup poll, quiet quitters make up at least 50% of the U.S. workforce. Yikes. Gallup identified an overall decline related to how employees felt about the following factors:

  • Clarity of expectations
  • Opportunities to learn and grow
  • Feeling cared about, and
  • A connection to the organization’s mission or purpose

Gallup found that things have gotten much worse for remote Gen Z and younger millennials. “This is a significant change from pre-pandemic years,” they report. “Since the pandemic, younger workers have declined significantly in feeling cared about and having opportunities to develop—primarily from their manager.”

More than ever, managers need to bolster their EQ to notice and respond to employee stress and burnout. They can begin by reflecting on how they’ve treated personnel over the past few years. Can they pinpoint whether any specific (in-)actions contributed to employees deciding to pare down their effort at work?

mentatdgt / Pexels

To staunch the flood of quiet quitters, managers should consider whether the company culture is living up to its ideals. In most cases, fixing cultural flaws is a top-down assignment. For instance, you can’t claim to honor employees’ personal time if you’re sending them emails at 10 p.m. When management walks the walk, they set the values and norms that everyone follows.

So, encourage employees to take time off as needed for personal errands. Establish healthy boundaries around when employees send and respond to messages. Offer flexible work arrangements that focus on output, not hours clocked. Bolstering respect for and connection with employees should be on every manager’s To-Do List.

“It’s easy to place the blame for quiet quitting on lazy or unmotivated workers,” say Folkman and Zenger. But “instead, this research is telling us to look within and recognize that individuals want to give their energy, creativity, time, and enthusiasm to the organizations and leaders that deserve it.”