By now, you’re likely acquainted with the term quiet quitting. Informally defined in a 17-second TikTok video by user Zaid Khan, quiet quitting refers to restricting efforts at work and not going above and beyond one’s job duties. The video quickly launched the term into the business zeitgeist — where it’s found surprising staying power.
I’ll admit that when any trend or meme takes hold like this, I’m always a bit skeptical. And I’m not alone; much of the pushback on quiet quitting has boiled down to “What’s new about this?” After all, people have always coasted at work. But the flurry of debate speaks to the fact that this idea — whether we agree with its label or whether it’s new — is resonating with people at a time when the power dynamic between employee and employer is shifting.
Get Updates on Transformative Leadership
Evidence-based resources that can help you lead your team more effectively, delivered to your inbox monthly.
Please enter a valid email address
Thank you for signing up
With this in mind, I reached out to researchers who study organizational behavior, leadership, and employee engagement and performance to get their input on what it means that employees are choosing to limit extra-role behaviors, and effective ways managers can create a work environment where employees want to engage.
Rebuild the Psychological Contract With Employees
Shannon G. Taylor, professor of management at the University of Central Florida, and coauthor of “A Little Rudeness Goes a Long Way”:
One of the core issues of quiet quitting has to do with what management researchers call a psychological contract. In contrast to a written employment contract that some workers might sign when starting at a new company, a psychological contract contains the unwritten expectations and obligations that employees and employers (including managers) have of and to one another.
Just a few generations ago, the psychological contract for most workers was transactional: Employees were expected to show up, work 9-to-5, and be rewarded with a paycheck and a pension. My grandfather is a good example: He spent his entire professional career at Caterpillar. He worked about 30 years, then retired with a pension and a gold watch. Since then, employees have come to define their relationship with their employer more broadly, in what’s called a relational contract. We want more than a steady paycheck. We want interesting, challenging work. We want opportunities for growth and development. We want to build meaningful relationships and be supported. In exchange, we won’t just check the boxes in our job description. We’ll come in early, stay late, help our colleagues, go the extra mile, and be good organizational citizens.
When employees feel like employers aren’t keeping up their end of the bargain, you end up with quiet quitting. In other words, workers are starting to define their psychological contract more narrowly — more transactionally.
So, how do you fix broken psychological contracts? Research offers a few suggestions: Managers need to build strong, trusting relationships with employees. In some cases, they need to regain the trust of employees who think they’ve reneged on their deal. Managers should also communicate openly and honestly about their — and the organization’s — expectations of employees from day one. Companies can use realistic job previews in the selection process to help define expectations. Whereas some organizations want to highlight only the best parts of working at their company — they’re trying to attract candidates, after all — those that highlight both the positives and the negatives provide a more accurate picture of what the job is going to be like and subsequently improve commitment and retention.
Of course, if organizations want their employees to give more, they should give more to their employees. It’s a two-way street, and many workers these days feel like it’s just one way.
Foster Employee Voice Through Supportive Relationships
Jim Detert, the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, and coauthor of “Saving Management From Our Obsession With Leadership”:
The title and content of a paper my coauthors and I published 14 years ago, “Quitting Before Leaving: The Mediating Effects of Psychological Attachment and Detachment on Voice,” shows that we’ve known for some time that when employees’ psychological attachment to their organization is broken, they stop voluntarily speaking up to try to make the place better. Feeling understood and supported by your boss decreases the likelihood of “quitting before leaving,” whereas verbally abusive leader behavior increases it.
In this study and so many others, it’s been shown that the way a boss treats their subordinates makes a huge difference in whether people “quit quietly” — that is, keep doing only what they must, but no more.
Understand What It Means to Offer High-Quality Work
Sharon K. Parker, a John Curtin Distinguished Professor at Curtin University, and coauthor of “How Well-Designed Work Makes Us Smarter”:
Rather than debating whether quiet quitting is real (it is) or whether it’s a helpful strategy for a specific worker (it can be), we need to ask what sorts of work conditions cause these behaviors in the workplace.
Hundreds of studies show that organizational citizenship and other such behaviors flourish when people are satisfied with their work and committed to the organization. People are more satisfied and committed when they have decent leaders who treat them with respect, when the processes in the organization are seen to be fair and just, and when they have high-quality work. High-quality work, in turn, means having varied and meaningful tasks, clear goals, and a positive team climate. It means a job in which workers have some autonomy over their work, including a say not just in how they carry out their tasks but also — as much as is feasible — influence over where and when they work (for example, having the option to work from home some days if that is their preference).
Perhaps most relevant for workplaces today, high-quality work also means having levels of demands and expectations of workers that are reasonable. Research shows us that when workers are emotionally exhausted (an indicator of burnout), overwhelmed, or deeply fatigued, they reduce their citizenship behaviors. This withdrawal of effort is a natural protective response in which an individual seeks to conserve, or restore, their depleted energy. To prevent quiet quitting at a time when many people are fatigued and fed up, managers need to be especially careful about not overwhelming people with excessive job demands, long work hours, or unreasonable pressures.
Recognize and Show Respect for How Employees Have Changed
Kristie Rogers, associate professor of management in the College of Business Administration at Marquette University, and Beth Schinoff, assistant professor of management and organization at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, coauthors of “Disrespected Employees Are Quitting. What Can Managers Do Differently?”:
Quiet quitting is, at its heart, an identity shift. Part of the answer lies in seeing who your employees are now rather than treating them as the person they once were. Approaching conversations with your employees in humanizing ways that show care for the whole person rather than for a “hustler” or a “quiet quitter” signals respect in a more holistic way. When people feel valued holistically, they are more likely to naturally engage or reengage in their work.
Help Employees Rebuild Connections to Teammates and Culture
Thomas Roulet, associate professor in organization theory at the University of Cambridge, and coauthor of “How Shifts in Remote Behavior Affect Employee Well-Being”:
Quiet quitting is not a new issue at all. It is simply suggesting a low level of engagement and motivation among workers, which is currently exacerbated by (1) a rather uncertain and depressing environment, which creates disengagement at work as employees question their purpose; (2) high inflation, which creates issues of internal equity — newcomers are getting pay raises, while the cost of living is skyrocketing for existing employees; and (3) a confusing hybrid work environment that has weakened our social connections to the company culture and the potential friendships that we can build at work.
This latter driver is particularly important: Employees’ engagement relies on them feeling connected to one another individually and feeling part of a bigger purpose as a team working together on a collective endeavor. In our recent article on employee behavior, my coauthors and I found that junior employees actually appreciated the collaboration and the meetings because they broke social isolation.
Bringing people back to the office is, to some extent, one solution against quiet quitting, if we can help them use office time to make meaningful connections, be their authentic selves, and share what unites them.
It is also about helping employees rethink their role in organizations and giving them the autonomy to be entrepreneurial — to lead new projects and shape their own contributions to the organization instead of having tasks imposed on them in a top-to-bottom approach.