In recent weeks, the term “quiet quitting” has taken the media by storm. The internet is ablaze with chatter about the alleged trend of workers swearing to do only the bare minimum at work and nothing else.
As always, interest in the trend is partly driven by the media’s insatiable appetite for the next bright new thing that attracts clicks. And certainly, the explosion in interest in silent abandonment reflects how many Americans feel about their jobs after more than two years of pandemic disruptions.
Quit Calm: Do the Numbers Match the Hype?
Recent poll numbers cast doubt. Sure, a new Gallup survey finds that half of employees are “not engaged” at work and another 16% are “actively disengaged.” The latter group is defined resentful and tries to attach it to the leader by doing as little as possible (so the quieter one leaves). For entrepreneurs, those numbers should be a wake-up call to make sure the workforce is properly compensated and motivated. But as Quartz recently pointed out, these statistics are not unprecedented.
“The share of employees who identified as engaged was even lower between 2000 and 2014,” notes Sarah Todd of the site. And American workers “are positively raving about professional enthusiasm than workers in many other regions,” she adds, highlighting significantly lower levels of engagement in other parts of the world. For example, only 14% of Europeans are engaged in work.
Todd goes on to say that while the phrase “quit smoking” sounds dramatic, what it actually describes is that more workers turn their backs on the cultural norms you should find identity and fulfillment in your work (and thus make it easy for you to exploit for exploitation). As the pandemic moves out of its acute phase, many people seek meaning in other areas of their lives.
As I wrote earlier, academics have long divided workers into categories based on their approach to their work. Some people see how they earn a living as crucial to their status and self-esteem. These people who derive great satisfaction from excellence at work have what researchers call “career orientation”. Others see their work only as a means of putting food on the table. This is a “work orientation”. A third group made up of clergymen, artists and similar professions see their work as a vocation.
This painting is basically just a more academic version of the old “work to live or live to work” question, and it has been around for years. And as Todd describes quitting smoking, it sounds a lot like a simple transition from a career to a career orientation.
If so, that’s nothing new. The vast majority of people throughout history have seen their work as a means to an end. Silent resignations could be just millions of employees, propelled by the realizations of the pandemic, awakening from a fevered dream of hectic culture to return to a common and traditional understanding of the role of work in most people’s lives.
The problem is mismatched expectations, not quiet abandonment.
“All in all, quitting smoking doesn’t seem to have many real downsides for employees. It’s a much bigger problem from a boss’s point of view,” writes Todd. But that’s not entirely correct. A work orientation is certainly not bad as a well-considered approach from the point of view of the worker. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing from the boss’s point of view either.
Professors developed the work guidelines framework in part to encourage employers to better meet their expectations with those of employees. Many chores are best done by someone who wants to come in at nine and leave at five and go home on a respectable salary. Some roles are better suited to those with a career or professional orientation. Problems arise when the job and its occupant don’t match: a careerist will get angry in an assistant role with little chance of advancement, while a work-oriented employee will resent a position that requires total dedication.
Quitting quietly – seeing your job as simply a job – isn’t a problem when everyone’s expectations align. Problems arise when you thought about hiring an ambitious enterprising, but your employee was only there for stability and a salary. Which suggests that perhaps the greatest lesson for quiet quitting entrepreneurs is to re-engage in self-knowledge, openness and communication.
If you are clear about what orientation you want for a particular role (and the true purpose of the job) and both you and potential hires are open about your preferences, quitting smoking should be more media hype than a real business issue.