An antidote for quiet quitting

May 21, 2023

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When leaders take the time to invest in the development ambition of staff, they can create a system that supports people’s personal and professional sustainability.

I have been reading a lot about “quiet quitting” lately. Quiet quitting refers to people not going above and beyond at work and just meeting their job description. The implication is that this is somehow signaling to employers that the employee is looking to get by with the least amount of effort to avoid punishment. The employee is generally described as feeling undervalued and therefore is unwilling to work harder than their job requirements call for.

As the VP of operations at a successful environmental consulting firm, I view “meeting their job description” as a vitally important accomplishment for all staff. Things run quite smoothly when that is happening. We bring in loads of new business, serve our clients well, get paid decently, and can sleep easy at night knowing we did a good thing each day. From this perspective, “quiet quitting” is better described as “thriving sustainably.” This is the basic agreement between employers and employees: the employee does a job and the employer pays them for it. In exchange for their effort, the employee earns income consistency. This is an honorable arrangement. Yet this topic continues to come up because the question that is never quite answered is whether one side of the partnership is benefitting at the expense of the other. This search for balance and sustainability is central to the discussion on quiet quitting.

What is professional sustainability? No matter what the context, sustainability is fundamentally about matching the consumption of resources to the ability to regenerate those resources. When this cycle has decreasing returns, as so many of our human systems do, the balance is off and we need to adjust or perish. There are a few variables that can be influenced to reach a sustainable balance: we can decrease resource consumption, increase resource efficiency, or increase resource regeneration.

In terms of the workforce, the resource we are talking about is the individual human capacity to work in a way that returns results for the individual, clients, and the organization. Decreasing resource consumption means working less or with reduced intensity. Increasing resource efficiency means developing greater capacity to deliver results with the same amount of effort. But what is increased resource regeneration? How do we increase the regeneration of the individual human capacity to work in a way that returns results? This rests on the underlying interests of each person, what captures their attention, and what ultimately energizes and inspires them to work.

There are two main ways to pull off resource regeneration: people can do this by developing deeper expertise in a specific domain through consistent and thoughtful application of education and experience, or by developing broader knowledge across new domains by stretching into new and uncomfortable spaces. The problem is that deeper expertise is often overlooked as “doing the bare minimum” while developing broader knowledge is seen as going above and beyond. However, sustainability means matching effort with regenerative outcomes, and for those who thrive on developing greater breadth, the effort returns energy and motivation to proceed further.

What can managers do about this? The first thing is to understand what motivates each person. To do this requires taking the time to get to know your staff. The basis of this is being clear about expectations, providing support, matching opportunities with interests, and giving consistent feedback. This is the foundation for establishing a caring relationship. The next step is to support each person’s development path. Understanding their motivation around building depth or breadth is a great starting point. Then defining the “development horizon” sets the directionality of their individual development. This means understanding the larger abstract development goals of each person, identifying what skills or ways of being are just out of immediate reach, and using that to set direction for the next level of skills development. From there, the process is about providing the coaching necessary to keep someone’s focus on their development path and listening to their experiences along the way to make adjustments as needed. All of this needs to be done within the context of the needs of the organization.

When leaders take the time to invest in the self-directed development ambition of their staff, they create a regenerative system supporting people’s personal and professional sustainability. This is the antidote to the dreaded “quiet quitting” I am hearing so much about. It’s good for people and good for business. 

Miles Gullingsrud is vice president of operations at WRA, Inc. Contact him at gullingsrud@wra-ca.com.

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