Quiet Quitting: Why Leaders Need To Chase The Real White Whale
Quiet Quitting

Written by Brent Mullins

Sep 23, 2022

Call me Quiet Quitter.

I stole that from one of the most famous opening lines ever, Moby Dick. In case you don’t know the story, Moby Dick is a giant white sperm whale that bit Captain Ahab’s leg off. From then on, he devoted his life to getting single-minded vengeance on the whale.

The elusive white whale wreaked havoc on the Captain and crew, which is what I now think of when I read a story on quiet quitting. To those who believe the hype, it’s the white whale coming for all businesses; all curse this misunderstood scourge known as quiet quitting.

My not-so-subtle mockery reveals my hand as I think there’s an alternative way to look at this. To me, quiet quitting doesn’t sound like giving up. On the contrary, it seems like an additive set of actions to address the core human desire to live a complete life. The quiet quitting label is a massive disservice to both employer and employee as it ultimately divides and creates adversaries when both parties need each other to fulfill their hopes and potential.

For most employees, it’s not that they want to slack off or do less work. They want to feel engaged and have holistic well-being that includes finding purpose and meaning and the things that give them a sense of fulfillment. The exploration of quiet quitting is a change in mindset to decide how work fits into their lives instead of the opposite.

Therein lies the opportunity for leaders who are capable of listening, understanding, and providing their workforce an opportunity to connect with purpose.

The Not-So-Positive View on Quiet Quitting

There’s no denying a gulf exists between employer (or manager) and employee, fuelled by rampant misunderstanding and the inevitable tendency towards sensationalism on social media.

So what is quiet quitting? The media will have you believe that quiet quitting is doing the bare minimum to keep one’s job. It’s quitting in place, coasting, or taking it so easy that you don’t have to quit because you’re hardly doing anything. Arianna Huffington went a step further on LinkedIn by declaring, “quiet quitting is not only about quitting on a job, it’s a step toward quitting life!” Good lord!

The quiet quitting label is so provocative and scandalous; how could social media sites not publish the hell out of it? It’s continually trending and driving platform engagement. The stories make it seem like quiet quitting is rampant and increasing exponentially, posing a clear and present danger to organizations everywhere.

If that’s true, what competent executive would not be experiencing arrhythmia or something like irritable bowel syndrome over productivity losses?

A More Balanced View

A More Balanced View

I believe the negative definitions of quiet quitting that get bandied about on social media are the least common reality. But look at the numbers – Gallup’s research shows that 32% of the workforce reports as engaged, which they define as the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace.

ADPR has a more pragmatic definition of engagement: it’s when employees give their best performance sustainably. Note that there’s no specific amount of time required for engagement. You may see a highly engaged employee working 40 laser-focused productive hours and someone far less effective who’s not fully engaged putting in 60 hours to ensure their face time gets noticed.

In contrast, Gallup says 17% are actively disengaged. You know who these folks are; they look and feel miserable at work and unsparingly spread their unhappiness. The deeply dissatisfied 17% are likely doing work that gives them little or no intrinsic satisfaction; their talent and passions are misaligned with their work. This group is most likely operating as the negative quiet quitting persona.

Current thinking would have you believe that the remaining 50%+ of the NOT engaged are also quiet quitters. Many quiet quitting commentators say the 50% fully perform their job duties and are not underperforming. They’re meeting or exceeding performance expectations, but they’re firmly holding work and life boundaries as they no longer work late nights, weekends or operate in an “always on” mode.

Are these quiet quitters? Not in my book. But I don’t think they’re giving their best performance either. Doing your duty is not the same as feeling engaged; people describe feeling engaged with positives like feeling deeply curious, engrossed in challenges, captured by possibility, feeling valued in an awesome team experience, or feeling “in the zone.” It’s not difficult labor to give your best when you experience such a positive work life.

This large group in the middle is a tremendous untapped opportunity – the 50% of the not fully engaged. They’re your “frontline” employees, the ones closest to the customer, your products, and service delivery. What gains could you realize if you could move a quarter or half to fully engage? Devising strategies to address their top needs puts you in place to realize productivity gains, increased customer engagement, more innovation, and employee retention – to name a few of the classic engagement ROIs.

But before you can move forward and spur your demotivated employees to reach new levels of engagement, you first need to address the elephant in the room: why are they not already engaged?

Taking a Step Back to Get Perspective

Look closer at our recent work experience

If you examine our recent work experience, you’ll quickly discover a confluence of events that’s produced something profound in the workforce. As COVID-19 accelerated, employees were sent home, and overnight it felt like routines, communities, and countless types of social connections were broken, disrupted, and no longer in our control. There’s sadness for what was lost when deployed to the home office. And now, with the return-to-office initiatives, it’s creating a loss for the good things found during remote work.

Whether employees are 100% back or hybrid, the office is just not the same as before COVID-19. How is a person supposed to make sense of such a complicated emotional experience?

Employees are stepping back and asking themselves the big questions, “what do I want out of my life? Is this fulfilling? What does fulfillment even mean? Is the cost I’m paying to work and live like this worth it? What price am I willing to pay for my well-being?”

Consider this startling finding by McKinsey, which asked employees and executives if they were living their purpose in day-to-day work. In total, 85% of executives and upper management said yes, compared to only 15% of frontline managers and employees. That means that up to 85% of managers and frontline employees were unsure or disagreed that they can live their purpose in their day to day work.

The disorienting pandemic effects on employees and senior leaders continue to affect many aspects of well-being even as we slouch forward into the late phase. Conventional well-being elements include psychological (meaning/purpose), social, physical, economic, and environmental. Deloitte reports a chasm between how differently the rank and file and executives perceive the care for employee well-being. A reported 56% think their company’s executives care about their well-being. But 91% of C-suite believe that employees feel their leaders care about them.

Ironically, even considering these mismatched outlooks, McKinsey found that 70% of polled employees said their sense of purpose is primarily defined by work. This presents an opportunity – if you can help your employees connect to purpose, you will inspire greater performance and attract winning talent.

What You Can Do

Have a dialog with your team

Employees seek opportunities to bring more purpose and greater well-being into their lives. Organizations that help them find it will be the ones leading the competition for talent. Your advantage for supporting their growth is a workforce aligned with your mission and the potential that comes with it. It’s not a simple challenge, but a great deal in your direct control can make significant inroads.

Communicate Your Organizational Purpose/Mission

True, it’s not your employee’s personal purpose statement, but it’s the purpose your organization shares with the world. And it’s the mission they’re an important part of; a major source of pride and inspiration for employees.

However, the risk of discussing purpose but not aligning with it can do more harm than good. Modeling integrity (what I believe is made clear by what I say and do), or not modeling it, is either a wellspring of confidence or the death blow to credibility.

The Journal of Financial Economics research found that integrity is one of few organizational values correlated with profitability, stating, “high levels of perceived integrity are positively correlated with good outcomes, in terms of higher productivity, profitability, better industrial relations, and a higher level of attractiveness to prospective job applicants.”

Here is how that might begin:

    1. Have a dialogue with your team about your purpose. What resonates and what doesn’t? How might you incorporate future dialogues into your operating rhythm, and how might you meaningfully cascade it throughout the organization? Share real stories about how your mission comes to life in the world – it’s inspirational. There’s no right or wrong frequency. The only absolute is that one-and-done will not cut it.
    2. Create an opportunity for every employee to reflect on their purpose. Workshops, storytelling in all-hands meetings, and peer learning groups are great ways to bake in dialogue so that each level understands and has the opportunity to connect how their contribution links to your purpose.
    3. With clarity of purpose comes creativity. Structure the small group dialogue with the added opportunity to generate and capture ideas for how to better fulfill the mission; it’s a potential treasure trove of improvement ideas for internal and customer-facing processes, productivity gains, and better customer experiences.

Meaning Every Day

A meaningful one-on-one meeting is valuable

A meaningful one-on-one meeting is a valuable forum to explore how employees and managers can tweak the job designs to better link personal and organizational purposes. A common approach is to look outside the organization for opportunities to contribute to your community, a worthy idea, to be sure. Yet the everyday connection to purpose means finding it in daily events. Deploy a method like feedforward to your leaders for their use with directs in creating this purpose picture.

    • Feedforward is a simple but effective development practice that emphasizes collaboration, builds trust, requires minimal time, no financial investment, and transfers immediately on the job.
    • It asks an individual or team, “If I (or we) were to be more [insert goal or objective here], what would I/we be doing?” The question generates the responder’s preferred behaviors, stating how one can be a better coach, a better communicator, a more caring leader, etc.
    • When used with your direct report, it’s a one-on-one collaboration that invites you both to the table to create a positive future outcome, a behavioral picture of five to seven bullets of what it “looks like” to do something very well.

You can learn more about Feedforward in this article.

Attend To Your Leaders

The old saying, “The cobbler’s children have no shoes,” comes to mind; it’s easy to minimize effort for a group of smart, motivated, and capable leaders, but neglecting them will sub-optimize – if not impede – your intentions.

Your leaders need the same dialogue and opportunity to engage with purpose as your front line. A shocking statistic from ADPRI; a team had a 0.04% chance of being engaged when the team leader was not engaged.

Joe Folkman, psychometrician and author of The Extraordinary Leader, analyzed 360 survey data from 113,000 leaders and discovered that trust is the most crucial factor in balancing the drive for results with care for the team: “When direct reports trusted their leader, they also assumed that the manager cared about them and was concerned about their well-being.”

It sounds so simple, but consider a PwC study that found 50% of CEOs worldwide consider a lack of trust a significant threat to their organizational growth. In addition to the actions above that build trust, consider equipping yourself with data to see how your organization fares today.

Off-the-shelf or internally built surveys can provide the needed data to produce valuable heatmaps and direct improvement strategies. At the individual leader level, Feedforward is an excellent method to enhance trust.

See this article for a deeper dive on trust and tips on how to build it in the workplace.

Chasing the Real White Whale

In her 1996 biography on Melville, Laurie Robertson-Lorant, described the hunt for the great white whale as “man’s search for meaning in a world of deceptive appearances and fatal delusions.”

I began the article by comparing the myriad social media diatribes against quiet quitters as the white whale of this story. But in the end, Robertson-Lorant’s take is perhaps more apt, both for the book and for our own situation.

The white whale isn’t an epidemic of laziness, it’s a mass psychological response to a shared global event that was nothing short of traumatic. We’re all, as a result, looking for meaning as a response to what was lost; many feel deceived or even deluded after what’s occurred over the last few years.

The reality is it’s all an appearance, and it’s up to the leaders to shatter the illusion. Break down the walls and encourage discourse. Search for meaning, listen, and provide your employees with a reason to engage. I’m confident that they will respond in kind.

About The Author

Brent Mullins is a Certified Executive Coach serving successful senior leaders in global organizations to create positive, sustained change and achieve breakthrough performance. Brent’s extensive real-life experience includes executive leadership serving as Global Head of Human Resources at Fortune 200 companies and 25+ years in leadership roles. His expertise in navigating complex differences in assumptions, values, beliefs, and core culture is at the heart of his work.

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