27 September 2023

Quiet quitting is a leadership problem

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Michelle Gibbings* tackles the current phenomenon of ‘quiet quitting’ and suggests that in the end it doesn’t help anyone.

We love a good trend.

Last year, apparently, Australians were following the American trend and the Great Resignation was coming to our shores.

It turned out to be a bit of a furphy, and Australians didn’t ditch their jobs on mass and move to new careers or organisations.

The latest trend is ‘quiet quitting’, to which attention was given following a Tik Tok clip, which went viral.

If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s where employees stop (or quit) doing more than they are paid for.

In the week I wrote this there were more than 10 articles in my inbox about this so-called new trend.

There was Gallup’s article on whether quiet quitting was real, and Ariana Huffington’s opinion piece on why quiet quitting isn’t the solution to burnout and workplace stress.

Lastly, there was Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman’s article in the Harvard Business Review.

Their research, over many years, shows that leadership is at the root of quiet quitting.

They found that the least effective managers had three-to-four times as many people who were quietly quitting compared with the most effective leaders.

It’s a reminder that leadership has and always will matter.

How people are treated by their bosses impacts how they feel and how they perform.

All this means that the idea of quietly quitting is nothing new.

A workplace where people feel they are unfairly treated adds to their stress levels and is a factor that contributes to burnout.

As researchers, Michael Leiter and Christina Maslach explain in an article for Scientific American, if a person believes they work harder than someone else and are paid less, they’ll be unhappy.

While we would commonly see this as fairness, in research terms, it is known as equity theory.

The greater the perceived inequity, the greater is the motivator for the person to try and find a way to restore the balance.

How they do this will vary, but it can lead to an employee being less productive, taking more sick leave or committing fraud as the person tries to find a way to fix the inequity.

As a leader, you play a crucial role in ensuring that people are recognised for their efforts fairly.

Fairness isn’t just about reward and recognition.

It’s about how you spend your time; where you allocate resources; whom you give good work to.

Ask yourself: Do you fairly delegate, coach and engage with each team member, or do you play favourites?

Great leaders can see value in the difference each team member brings and recognise that each person is unique and has different needs.

They work to bring out the best in each person and do so in a way in which people feel valued, respected and fairly treated.

There’s another layer to this conversation, and it’s about the idea of being quiet.

I love a bit of quiet time, but when things at work aren’t working, being quiet doesn’t help.

Being quiet is at the root of all toxic cultures.

When people are quiet, the bad issues go underground, only to surface later in a worse form.

The bully manager gets away with it and good team members leave.

As a result, the working environment erodes and corrodes, impacting performance, outcomes and overall organisational performance.

As a leader, you want your team members to tell you how they feel and what’s going on.

Of course, they will only do that if they think the environment is psychologically safe.

That’s an environment where they won’t be punished for speaking up and where giving genuine feedback isn’t labelled a career-limiting move.

You also want to know if your team members aren’t happy at work because you then have the opportunity to do something about it.

Is it that they are in the wrong job given their skill level? Is the workload too much? Are there outside pressures causing stress?

The best questions you can ask a team member are: “How can I help you?” and “what do you need from me?

For team members, the question to ponder is, at a time when there is a massive skill shortage, why would you hang on in an environment that doesn’t bring out your best?

Quietly quitting may give you head space and airtime, and it can help you feel as though you are better balancing work and personal life.

However, when you do the bare minimum, it will, over time, impact your reputation and your self-esteem.

No one wins when people feel the only way to survive work is to quit quietly, disengage, withdraw and leave.

We need more, not less, conversations about what’s working and not working at work.

We need more, not less, connection and engagement.

*Michelle Gibbings is a Melbourne-based change leadership and career expert and founder of Change Meridian. She can be contacted at [email protected].

This article first appeared atwww.changemeridian.com.au.

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